To those who know Charli XCX from “Boom Clap” — the sugary, besotten cut from The Fault in Our Stars turned breakout hit — she’s a newcomer: another bratty new face from a pop machine that stamps out bratty new faces. In reality, Charlotte Aitchison is already a pop lifer at 22, on about her fourth reinvention. First, she was a Myspace DIYer, then a gothy ‘80s maximalist, then a crushed-out chillwave purveyor, and now an unlikely teenpop starlet. Madonna would be dizzied by reinvention at this pace: Sucker is not Charli XCX’s debut album but her third.
It’s also the normal pace pop runs at in 2014, where artists’ A&R reinventions – the retoolings upon retoolings that precede artists’ debut – take place not behind label doors but on SoundCloud, across blogs and otherwise in public, allowing each successive style to sweep in a new microdemographic of followers and fans. “Tweenage spitfire” might seem a stretch for someone whose prior demographic was mostly pop nerds and indie fans, but you could hear it coming. You could hear it on one-off “SuperLove”; you could definitely hear it on radio smash “I Love It” (which Charli gave to Icona Pop thinking it didn’t fit her sound — so much has changed in so little time); and you could infer it from her entry into the major-label songwriters’ gallery, penning tracks for up-and-comers like Ryn Weaver and Bella Thorne, her Disney doppelganger. Even her earliest shows in smallish venues, pulsed with bumping-and-grinding star charisma, made for huge arenas.
“Boom Clap” is a songwriter’s pop song, a smart song – drunk as much on love as it is on form and onomatopoeia, and full of enough Charli touches to sound like hers. Still, it’s far more saccharine than career highlights “Stay Away” or “You’re the One.” It suggests a worst-case scenario of polishing away everything that made Charli XCX compelling, turning her into a could’ve-been story like X Factor personality bomb Cher Lloyd (homogenized by Simon Cowell’s Syco) or British musical polyglot A*M*E (by Max Martin’s proteges).
Fortunately, Sucker is not that album; it only resembles a traditional teenpop debut during its draggy final stretch. It’s also not True Romance. That album was great for its deathly serious melodrama, but Sucker is great because it takes nothing seriously. Credit Aitchison, who’s proven herself adept both at musical reinvention and at industry politics. “I proved a point to my record label that I wasn’t f-cking around,” she recently told TIME. “I can write big pop songs, but I can A&R myself as well.” What she’s A&Red herself into this time is something like a late-‘90s movie soundtrack, down to a Republica homage: lead track “Sucker.” The rhythms and sass come directly from “Ready to Go,” but the bridge — “Sitting on a plastic speedboat in the ultraviolet ocean, playing cool songs, trying to show off,” shouted singsong — is pure Charli, both in acid-trip surrealism and in attitude. Single “Break the Rules,” paced like an EDM stomper, takes ‘90s Shampoo and Garbage and turns them into ‘10s treasure. Icona Pop drove pop off this particular bridge years ago, and it’s thrilling to hear an artist revive these pleasures without the guilt.
Even the bad ideas work. “London Queen” is like the Ramones as interpreted by Mary-Kate and Ashley, punctuated with Britishisms “Oi!” and “Wank!” like emoji. When she chirps things like, “When I’m driving on the wrong side of the road, I feel like J! F! K!” it’s embarrassing on the first listen. But on subsequent plays it’s exuberant, and great fun.
Elsewhere, Charli XCX easily outdoes her peers. “Gold Coins” is Lorde’s “Royals” with the saturation and satire cranked up, and the broke bitterness even more acute. Throwbacks “Need Ur Luv” and “Breaking Up” (on the former, shades of The Chalets) should render would-be doo-wopper Meghan Trainor entirely irrelevant. Given her younger fanbase, “Body of My Own” can’t go past PG-13, but smartly, it reserves its best euphemisms for the music – the “Turning Japanese” quotes, the effervescent bridge-as-climax. “Doing It” is pastiche worthy of last year’s Haim album, and fans of early Madonna will get much from “Dress You Up” pings and eerily reproduced vocal shimmer. And while Rivers Cuomo cowrite “Hanging Around” sounds exactly like early Weezer, its spoken-word bridge is as much a throwback to – again – Aitchison’s own “Stay Away.”
Sucker is full of callbacks like these: “Doing It” is like a sequel to “Take My Hand,” and “Body of My Own” outsulks anything on True Romance. It’s fitting. While Sucker contains a dressing room’s worth of new styles and a Top 40 playlist’s worth of pop moves, Charli XCX is a smart enough songwriter to make them her own, and magnetic enough a presence to make that a winning prospect.