Charli XCX reflects on nightlife and mental health

By JAE CHOI | September 19, 2019

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Tuomas Vitikainen/CC BY-SA 4.0

One of Charli XCX’s most redeeming qualities as a musician is her unflinching artistic sincerity and independence. From the very beginning of her career, Charli has been committed to brave sonic experimentation and exploration, not just in the way that she produces her albums, but also in the manner by which she proactively incorporates features from diverse artists into her music. This very sincerity and independence is at the forefront of what is her most revealing and dynamic album yet, Charli

Charli XCX released her self-titled Charli to much anticipation last Friday. It’s her first album in five years, and you can tell that she’s come a long way since 2013’s True Romance and the three other releases that followed.

I first started listening to Charli after hearing a song of hers produced by SOPHIE, who is currently one of my favorite producers. I found the abrasive beats on her extended play Vroom Vroom to synergize well with Charli’s ability to fluidly navigate between melodic falsetto singing and aggressive vocal delivery. From that point, I began listening to some of her mixtapes and was thoroughly impressed by her creative take on pop music.

Given that SOPHIE produced her previous two mixtapes, I was surprised that she wasn’t more involved in Charli. This time around, Charli and AG Cook, one of her long-time collaborators, co-produced the album. The shift from SOPHIE’s “hyperkinetic” production to a warmer kind of sound that somehow still maintains some of her harsh, sharp-edged style was an interesting subtle change. 

Another change was apparent in the themes her lyrics explore. Charli’s songs often focus on the restless energy constituting nightlife — the thrill of meeting new people, the excitement of dancing in the club and the possibilities of finding love. This time around, her lyrics seemed to focus much more on the darker aspects of these kinds of outings; on songs like “Gone,” Charli reflects on feeling uncomfortable around large crowds and the paradoxical juxtaposition between being consumed in a sea of people and feeling totally alone. 

“Gone,” which is the second song on a nearly hour-long record, begins with an outburst of nervous anxiety: 

“I have to go, I’m so sorry / But it feels so cold in here / I am just now realizing, they don’t care / I try real hard, but I’m caught up by my insecurities / Pour me one more, watch the ice melt in my fist.” 

This question of self-worth and uncertainty about the feelings of others expands into questions about the purpose of love and human relationships: 

“Why do we keep when the water runs? / Why do we love if we’re so mistaken? / Why do we leave when the chase is done? / Don’t search me in here, I’m already gone, baby / Why do we keep when the water runs? / Why do we love?”

These questions are developed in other songs like “Cross You Out” and “Thoughts,” where Charli shifts between feelings of sadness and resignation about the complications that arise from relationships. Notably, she frequently explores the difficulties of balancing the imperfections of her former partners with her own. 

However, there are also plenty of triumphant moments in the album: from the cheerful nostalgia of “1999,” to the life-affirming power of “Blame It On Your Love,” featuring Lizzo, and “Official,” Charli finds plenty to celebrate through relationships that lift her up amid feelings of insecurity and anxiety. 

Although I didn’t feel like too many of her songs on this album had the same intoxicatingly addictive appeal of songs from her previous mixtapes Pop 2 and Number 1 Angel, I found her lyrical honesty and capacity for self-reflection to be an especially high point of an album that not only features very catchy hooks but also discusses issues that aren’t really explored in pop music. 

What’s interesting about a genre like pop is that it feeds off of its potential for wide appeal. It’s supposed to be relatable and communicable to large audiences, yet it’s strange how the vast majority of the songs at the top of the Billboard charts fail to address pertinent issues like mental health and the anxieties that come with a world that is becoming more and more interconnected. Perhaps this is due to the fact that difficult issues, for all their relevance, sometimes aren’t very appealing, but I appreciated how Charli was able to harness the intrinsically communicative potential of pop to push the boundaries of what is typically possible in the genre. It seems to be something that Logic, in his song “1-800-273-8255,” and Ariana Grande, in “breathin,” are also becoming more aware of in their work.

As is typical in her records, Charli likes to feature a large and diverse retinue of artists in her songs. This time, she had artists like Christine and the Queens from France, as well as Korean American electronic musician Yaeji on the song “February 2017” and Brazilian drag queen and song-writer Pabllo Vittar, among others. 

But to me, what was especially striking about her selections was finding out that she had reached out to these people independently of her label. She has a clear idea about the artistic direction of her music and is willing to go the extra mile to make it happen, which is evident through how she makes her songs all her own. Charli once again proves her commitment to artistic sincerity and independence while lifting other artists in the process. 

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