Does anyone else in the pop landscape represents female-voiced, left-of-center weirdo Top 40 pop the way Charli XCX does? Lorde has had indie appeal, but her minimalist pop goes more for sage storyteller, rather than the slumber party pop rock. Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga have made careers based on their extremism, but their songs mostly follow a typical route. Charli’s simultaneous parallel of indie appeal and Top 40 flirtation is the kind of combo that has only been preceded by Cyndi Lauper and is only rivaled today by Robyn.
Much like stadium-fillers like Madonna and Britney Spears, Charli has a unique but limited voice, yet she’s been sneaking into the deep end of the Hot 100 for the last couple years, while never betraying her alternateen style. She copped her first #1 single with the delightfully off-kilter Iggy Azalea collab “Fancy,” quickly followed by a Top 10 spot all for herself with the The Fault In Our Stars smash “Boom Clap.” While her 2013 debut album True Romance was great, the tracks at times gave way to bloat, with some of the record’s lesser tracks being weighed down by its over-reaching monogenre production.
On Sucker, Charli fully branches out of the role as the substitute Robyn, and punches through with her own sound that goes beyond her signature cockney accent. Most of the songs are pocketed in a guitar/bass/drums format which is a perfect fit for Charli’s sugary snarl. The record is punky, but never exudes any feaux toughness– this record knows it’s pop, it just happens to be made by someone who digs on Buzzcocks as much as the Spice Girls. Not everything is all barre chord crunch though – in fact two of its strongest tracks are the most punk-removed. “Doing It” is crystal clear 2014 pop that sounds like a remixed Haim track, and “Need Ur Luv” is a bopping piano-based shuffle that splits the difference between Vampire Weekend and Annie (the track is produced by VW’s Rostam Batmanglij).
“Boom Clap” is still of course the reigning hero here – its opening salvo like a call to arms saying “GOOD TIMES STARTING NOW.” It was actually worrisome for a time that the song’s towering power might cast a shadow over the record (it did after all cause the LP to be delayed for two months due to its unexpected success). The track however is a snug fit at the record’s candy center forming the connective tissue between the thornier rock of call-to-arms rockers like “Break the Rules” and “Breaking Up” and its synthier moments. Much like True Romance though, there are a couple of missteps, but they’re more singular, and far less worse than the abominable Brooke Candy guest spot on “Cloud Aura.” On “Hanging Around” (which has an unfortunately similar stomp-and-clap progression to Counting Crows’ own “Hanginaround”) Rivers Cumo steps in and does an update of Weezer’s much maligned single “Beverly Hills.” Right after is the Ashlee Simpson toeing “Die Tonight,” which unwittingly recalls her MySpace anthem “Pieces of Me.” Still these are casual missteps that are far less bad than how head-banging pop numbers like “Gold Coins” and “Body Of My Own” are great.
Another important aspect to what gives Sucker strength is how much it plays like an album but a decisive artist. There are no guest spots here which is a smart choice considering two of Charli’s biggest successes (“Fancy” and Icona Pop’s “I Love It”) have been collaborations, and this record is a prime opportunity to put Charli at the helm. Sucker doesn’t need any assistance – this a record that plays like a record, not a playlist (even if most of the songs are catchy as hell).
So with all of this considered, is Charli XCX our Cyndi Lauper? Well Lauper never dabbled too hard in rock guitars, so maybe that title belongs to Robyn. Perhaps Charli belongs more in camp with Joan Jett and Pat Benetar? But then again, their sound was decidedly more bar-band oriented and Charli’s sound is thoroughly connected to teenage bliss. The case for Charli XCX might just be that she’s simply an original – an unconventionally gnarly singer, that packs a big screen pop punch with a clear knowledge and appreciation for indie, alternative, and Britpop. Is this too wacky for the norms to allow any further that this point? I sincerely hope not.