First and foremost, let’s appreciate that headline reference.
OK, moving on.
Charli XCX, Charlotte Aitchison, released her second full-length album, Sucker, recently, and it’s pretty good with flashes of greatness.
Of course, a lot of three-star pop albums get released during the year, but this record stands out, because it’s a breathe of fresh air into the rote nihilism of the popular music landscape.
Pop is an incredibly reactive genre.
When everything on the radio sounds the same, it’s because of intentional assimilation.
Large surges in genre popularity such as the British Invasion, Disco, Hair Metal, Grunge or the recent EDM boom are a direct result.
Sometimes, the next popular thing is a direct reaction to the last popular thing. Nirvana was antithetical to Poison, so grunge begat hair metal.
Still, the influence of past works is pretty easy to trace. Buddy Holly can be linked to Jay Z in three steps.
The Beatles loved Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Kurt Cobain loved the Beatles and Jay Z re-purposed the chorus from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a hit single.
One of the biggest songs of the year uses the non-catchy part of an old Wham! song for its chorus.
Charli XCX doesn’t operate outside a sphere of influence, but Sucker shows she’s synthesizing more interesting sources.
Title track, “Sucker” establishes the expectations. The song’s conceit wasn’t new when Alice Cooper did it. Youth culture is in favor of rule breaking and against school. What’s interesting is the song’s structure and influences. It follows a loud-quiet-loud format, with pregnant, quiet moments, which owe a debt to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The backing drum machine also smacks of “Song 2” by Blur. Of course, it’s no surprise that a self-proclaimed ’90s bitch would be aware of alt-rock anthems, but it is a surprise to hear them employed in something legitimately expected to gain traction on pop radio.
It further subverts expectations by building to a drop that never comes. At the moment most other pop songs would turn up the club-rattling bass, “Sucker” takes a slithery turn to a sound approaching a sped-up version of J.Geils Band’s “Centerfold”. Of course, it’s less surprising in its context, because Sucker is a rock album in spirit and sometimes practice.
References to guitars, rocking and sunglasses abound. Many of the tracks actually feature guitar. Homage is even paid to The Ramones, in the song, “London Queen” when Aitchison enunciates baseball bat in an instantly familiar way.
Elsewhere, “Body of My Own” serves as a spiritual successor to Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop”, “Famous”, which is driven by a wonderfully guitar riff straight out of ’83 that channels Tom Tom Club, Fine Young Cannibals and Prince, “Hanging Around” sounds equal parts latter-day Weezer and Joan Jett, and “Need Ur Luv” even sends up Phil Specter-era girl groups.
Some of the disparate influences can be chalked up to collaboration. Rivers Cuomo receives a songwriting credit for “Hanging Around” and Ariel Pink produced “London Queen”.
However, it’s clear the intention was to create a sound outside of the Top 40’s current parameters.
While thoroughly enjoyable, Sucker is not perfect.
Some songs on the album don’t quite work, but there’s more hits than misses, but aside from “Die Tonight”, most of the songs operate above or at least outside the current pop fray.
Also, when the unifying theory behind an album is the blending of a myriad of oddball styles, cohesion is lost.
Coupled with an energy which almost never flags, Sucker can be a bit exhausting in one sitting.
Still, consumed in chunks, it’s wonderful ear candy.
Sucker‘s influences are always fairly apparent, so it wouldn’t be accurate to call it groundbreaking or even unique.
It is, however, a well-made album from an aspiring pop princess, who is willing to think outside of the box.
Modern pop music’s big hooks and nihilistic exuberance is present, but they’re cut from a slightly different cloth.