The quest for the perfect pop song has lured many along its seductive path. Behind it lies the notion that there is a formula for songwriting, an alchemy of choruses and hooks and bridges from which emerges the ideal earworm. But there is something stultifying here. The perfect pop song is coercive, it does all the work for us. It embodies a complaint that the philosopher Theodor Adorno made about mass-produced commercial pop in the 1940s: “The composition hears for the listener.”

To describe Charli XCX’s third album as riddled with imperfection is therefore meant as praise. The Essex-raised singer, real name Charlotte Aitchison, is a rogue element in the pop machine. She has notched up chart hits, is signed to a major label and toured with Taylor Swift last year. But she also flouts the usual album-tour timetable by releasing music whenever she wishes. Her songs are catchy but also skittish and glitchy, as though the computerised machinery that went into making them was suffering a seizure.

Charli opens with her chanting: “I go hard, I go fast and I don’t look back”. Her voice has been processed so that she does not seem to take a single breath during the track. Yet the impression of robotic perfection is subverted by a slow, repetitive electronic melody that does not go hard or fast and constantly looks back. The tension gives the song an intriguingly slanted angle, at once propulsive and unpredictable.

Human flaws run through the album. “I feel so unstable,” Charli sings on “Gone”. “Hate myself, I really love you,” she announces in “White Mercedes”. But there is a countervailing streak of playfulness too. The Britney Spears-referencing “1999” is a blast of nostalgic escapism for a bygone pop era. “Does anyone remember how we did it back then?” sings Charli, who turned seven in 1999.

The music features imaginatively chosen guests including other insider-outsiders like Christine and the Queens and Lizzo. It has been mainly produced by her usual collaborator, A G Cook of experimental collective PC Music. Bubblegum pop coexists with weird computer effects, mingled so effectively that it is unclear which is meant to be the disruptive element. The last sound on the album is of a medical monitor registering that a heart has stopped, a sustained electronic note expressing the ultimate human fallibility.


Charli’ is released by Asylum Records

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