Review: Charli XCX, Sucker

Charlotte Aitchison's second LP is a warhead, a sonic sour bomb that conceals sneering attitude and caustic kiss-offs beneath an initially shimmering pop sheen.
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Charlotte Aitchison's second LP is a warhead, a sonic sour bomb that conceals sneering attitude and caustic kiss-offs beneath an initially shimmering pop sheen.
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opinion byZACH BERNSTEIN

Pop quiz, hotshots: Can you recall any of Flo Rida’s lyrics from his 2008 hit “Low”? Probably not, but you definitely remember T-Pain’s auto-tuned hook. Let’s try a more recent example — Iggy Azelea’s “Fancy.” Despite balking on the verses, most people with Spotify access could sing Charli XCX’s thundering chorus in their sleep. We live in a golden age of the vocal hook. As hip-hop and EDM assert their chart dominance, the hook has emerged as the purest distillation of the pop essence for an ADD generation. Enter the hook singer — an upcoming songwriting talent looking to jumpstart their career with a 30-second dose of bubblegum glory. Sia did it, Bruno Mars did it, and now, Charli XCX, the brashly British voice behind the aforementioned “Fancy” and Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” hopes to break out into solo stardom on her second LP, Sucker.

And what a breakout it is — Sucker is one of 2014’s most dynamic and fully-realized pop albums. After the commercial fizzle of her moody, ethereal 2013 debut True Romance, 22-year-old Charlotte Aitchison has picked up more than a few tricks during her tenure as a Billboard second banana. Sucker is overpopulated with huge hooks, big emotions, and loud guitars. Some will call it a sellout, others will simply call it savvy — whatever the label, there is no denying the sugar-rush pleasure of these songs. In the spirit of the hard candy from which it derives its title, Sucker is a warhead, a sonic sour bomb that conceals sneering attitude and caustic kiss-offs beneath an initially shimmering pop sheen.

Pop punk is a well-worn genre, but Charli XCX makes it sound fresh and exciting again. Sucker crafts a pastiche of ’70s edge and ’80s production, mining the catalogs of Belinda Carlisle, Siouxsie Sioux, and the Clash for inspiration. The opening title track explodes in a Rubik's cubed hue of bouncy guitars and digital squeals that sounds like Debbie Harry collaborating with a short-circuiting R2-D2. “Break the Rules,” which delivers the Hot Topical commandment “I don’t wanna go to school, I just wanna break the rules,” rides a fat Stooges bassline that swells to a hand-clapping, shout-along chorus that could sound at home both at CBGB and “the discotheque,” as Charli would call it. On “London Queen,” Aitchison crafts a joyful pond-hopping success narrative, peppering the song with “Blitzkrieg Bop” oy’s as she adopts her best Joey Ramone impression, an American punk rocker who was trying to sound British in the first place. Punk has officially come full circle.

Charli XCX’s version of twenty-two certainly sounds less twee than whatever Taylor Swift is experiencing. Aitchison doesn’t make fun of her exes — she rips them to shreds, as on the album’s best track, “Breakin Up,” in which she disses her lover over snarling guitars, claiming that he has “an ugly tattoo,” “couldn’t dance,” and perhaps most damningly, he “had a friend in a band, but they’re not that cool.” Charli XCX’s lyrical concerns break no new ground, but this simplicity is crucial to the album’s streamlined appeal. The subject matters of “Doing It,” “Famous,” and the dementedly catchy “Gold Coins” beg no explanation — one hardly needs to hear the words to understand the mood Charli XCX is cultivating.

Sucker’s greatest musical weapon is Aitchison’s voice — a posh, melodramatic caterwaul that will encourage either adoration or virulent hatred for all of its full-throated, Union Jack swagger. The album wisely eschews subtle ballads, recognizing that much like Katy Perry’s body of work, such material would reveal the limitations of Aitchison’s roughed-up vocal register. When Sucker does ballads, it does them big, as on “Caught in the Middle” and TheFault In Our Stars soundtrack cut “Boom Clap,” a sublimely beautiful song equal parts Madonna and M83 that sounds like five Molly Ringwald movies condensed into three minutes.

Those traits which make the album distinctive — Aitchison’s singular voice and songwriting — unfortunately also contribute to its greatest downfall. Every piece of bubblegum eventually loses its flavor — Sucker’s A-side is absolutely killer, but with little stylistic or lyrical variation, the album becomes an endurance test as it passes the halfway mark of its thirteen tracks and forty-minute runtime. A few notable collaborations do relatively little to lessen the sense of monotony. The Rivers Cuomo-produced “Hanging Around” is basically just a Weezer outtake. Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend brings some Upper West Side Soweto sensibility to closer “Need Ur Luv” with cheerful backing vocals and plinking keyboards. Make no mistake, though, Sucker is always The Charli XCX Show, both to its benefit and its detriment.

Is it possible that Aitchison is playing a massive practical joke on us? The singer, notably listed as the principal songwriter for all of Sucker’s tracks, has openly discussed her boredom with contemporary pop music in the press, as well as her desire to reshape its trajectory. Could it be that this album, for all of its excesses — tiring runtime, lovably vapid lyrics, aggressively accessible melodies — is the ultimate tongue-in-cheek critique of modern-day pop? Sucker takes our own well-demonstrated desires for big hooks and bright colors, drolly lampooned as the cover art transposes Charli’s unimpressed Goth visage onto a Valentine’s Day pin-up color scheme, and saturates our eardrums until they burst. Yet, we crave this music and we continually return to it — supercharged pop that speaks to our most carnal and materialistic desires even as the world around us grows increasingly insane. Maybe we’re all suckers. Or maybe I’m over-analyzing Charli XCX’s m.o. This is pop music after all — artistic personas move fluidly between sincere and sardonic in the blink of a false eyelash. I don’t care. I love it.

B+