“I just wanna go back! Back to 1999,” Charli XCX sings on 1999, reminiscing about driving around in a Mercedes listening to Slim Shady when she would have been all of seven years old. With references to CDs and MTV, her party anthem celebrates a time when pop life seemed straightforward. When 1999 was released as a single last year, its earworm hook could be heard everywhere, yet the track only registered at number 13 in the UK charts (37 in the US). Four follow-up singles barely bothered the charts at all.
Charli XCX occupies an ambiguous position in the pop pantheon, a hip hinterland between cult artist and household name. Championed by critics and contemporaries, with a fervent fan base, the prolific singer-writer-producer has effectively spent 10 years being proclaimed the next big thing.
Now 27, the Hertfordshire public school girl’s career has been more miss than hit, sustained by minor solo successes and two massive US chart-toppers with songs she composed for other artists (I Love It with Icona Pop in 2012 and Fancy with Iggy Azalea in 2014). The sexy android cover and star-studded collaborations (including alternative icons Lizzo, Haim and Christine and the Queens) on her third album, Charli, suggest an all-guns-blazing pitch for blockbuster status. But the contents are far weirder than that implies.
Opening track Next Level Charli contradicts the cheery nostalgia of 1999 with a punchy futureshock manifesto delivered like a warrior robot reducing a dance floor to rubble.
Her aversion to overused pop tropes leads her to cram as many ideas as possible into every track. She has found a willing ally in executive producer A G Cook, whose own label P C Music specialises in wonkily eccentric experimental pop. The duo exhibit a brave but perhaps commercially foolhardy tendency to construct skyscraper choruses only to demolish them with every explosive studio tool at their disposal.
The mannered attack of Charli XCX’s swaggering vocals (think Toyah Willcox being asphyxiated with Auto-Tune dialled up to 11) can make her overloaded lyrics (“Strut my stuff on the strip/ Perspex all on the whip/ Pull up and vroom and s---/ Charli’s up in this b----”) difficult to respond to emotionally.
She shares with many of her pop generation an obsession with superficial glamour (there are more luxury cars than you’d find in an episode of Top Gear) only partially redeemed by anguished ballads exploring the lifestyle’s emptiness.
The throwaway joy of 1999 is turned around on sci-fi album finale 2099, a fractured, other-worldly chant about being alienated, underappreciated and misunderstood. Come the century’s end, you can almost imagine future critics scratching their AI-augmented brains and still touting Charli XCX as the next big thing.