Charli XCX Triumphs Through Pop Catharsis on BRAT

The English icon’s latest album is a messy, revelatory insight into what life exists at the precipice of fame.

Music Reviews Charli XCX
Charli XCX Triumphs Through Pop Catharsis on BRAT

For years, discussions of Charli XCX have noted the bifurcated nature of her fame: fiercely beloved by her fans but unable to break out into mainstream success—and she’s not alone in this distinction. Pop’s Middle Class, as The New York Times dubbed it, gets bigger everyday, but none of Charli’s peers acknowledge that divide as loudly as she does.

Her last album, 2022’s CRASH, was billed as her most serious attempt to play the music industry game she’d long bristled against. She used an A&R person for the first time and topped the album charts in the UK, Ireland and Australia. Songs like the sickeningly sweet “Yuck” and blatant September rip “Beg For You” were sonically commercial in a way that Charli hadn’t sounded since her “Boom Clap” days. The pivot was especially pronounced in the wake of her diaristic lockdown project, how i’m feeling now. Announced via a Zoom call and worked on in that same space, the album trapped affection and apprehension in amber. But with CRASH firmly in the rearview, it’s obvious that its mission largely failed at breaking Charli into a new tier of success—and, judging by the music on its follow up, it may have brought some old anxieties to the forefront.

On BRAT, Charli is once again channeling her experiences into radical, bite-sized pop songs. It makes CRASH feel even more like an aberration, drawing way closer from the forthright nature of how i’m feeling now. BRAT, though, is messy and vulnerable—in a way Charli’s work has lacked over the last decade. Her own framing positions the album as a club record, written as though she’s spouting these songs off via drunk texts to a friend. That last part is unambiguously true, right down to the sentence case titling. Calling BRAT a club record isn’t wrong, though, per se—fans breathlessly awaiting something that sounds like her lauded Boiler Room set might be left scratching their heads, though. Instead, BRAT is a love letter to the sounds of electroclash (think Ed Banger Records, Peaches, Uffie). Charli, with an assist from producers like EasyFun, Gesaffelstein, her fiance George Daniel and, of course, A.G. Cook has built her sound into something sparse, stimulating and strange.

BRAT offers a direct perspective into Charli’s psyche, illuminating the insecurities she feels when she looks backwards and forwards at her career. Whether it’s guilt about calling the paparazzi on herself, or feeling out of place at glitzy parties, she’s aware of her own marginality. As she puts it on “I might say something stupid,” a devastating, robotic ballad: “I’m famous, but not quite.” Her self-aware songwriting gets even more explicit on the glitchy “Rewind,” where she employs her trademark Auto-Tuned sing-rapping in an effort to draw out nostalgia about the days when her music was all passion, not a job. It’s put plainly: “I used to never think about Billboard / But now I’ve started thinking again / Wondering about whether I deserve commercial success.”

In a move that feels equal parts brave and chaotic, Charli XCX doesn’t shy away from acknowledging her discomfort with the way the current pop landscape pits women against each other. Even an artist as siloed as she is can’t seem to escape the constant comparisons, an insecurity among her peers that gets a closer reckoning on several of BRAT’s songs. While the vocal production choices on “Girl, so confusing” aren’t always successful, it lets Charli’s very real jealousy get expressed without veering into a teardown. Though she never addresses the artist by name, the lyrics do hold some clues: This person is more “about writing poems” than going to parties, and people say that she and Charli “have the same hair.” In a moment that feels especially pointed, Charli sings: “Think you should come to my party and put your hands up.” “Sympathy is a knife” does something similar, but with its darker lyrics and serrated synths, it hits much harder. For Charli, pity is an insult, especially when it’s from someone who already makes her feel bad about herself—“Cause I couldn’t even be her if I tried / I’m opposite, I’m on the other side,” she sings. We hear her get sent into a paranoid spiral, and the production plays that up in a cacophonous hail of drum machines.

We’re also treated to two of the most traditionally beautiful songs she’s ever recorded. Recalling Farrah Abraham’s mechanized stream of consciousness, “I think about it all the time” is an honest exploration of Charli’s feelings on motherhood. She reckons with fears that she’ll miss out on an experience that friends of hers are enjoying. These friends “know these things that I don’t” because they’ve become parents. It’s jarring in both sound and subject, but for an artist who made her name on evolution, she reckons with what kind of world she still has in front of her. We also hear Charli explore feelings of loss on BRAT. In the wake of SOPHIE’s passing, there have been paeans to her legacy from peers and admirers alike, most recently St. Vincent. It’s fitting that the only one with real pathos comes from Charli XCX, an artist whose trajectory was more altered by the late pop virtuoso than any other. First premiered at Billboard’s Women in Music Awards, “So I” is the rare moment where Charli lets all ego fall away. She sings about dinner invites declined and phone calls missed, and expresses guilt and regret. Anyone who’s lost someone suddenly knows how these feelings come flanking grief. In its chorus, she sings, “You always said it’s okay to cry / So I cry.” It’s a touching tribute to a friend that both reveres SOPHIE’s immense talent, but refuses to let any of us forget the person behind the music. As Charli puts it: “You’re a hero and a human.”

Though BRAT is, at every moment, an album about Charli’s feelings, it’s important to note that not all of those feelings are raw. There’s the ebullient “Club classics,” a song that exists both within and outside the club, building alongside her anticipation for a night out. There’s the bold and, well, bratty “Von dutch,” a self-obsessed and deliriously fun romp so good that its second-verse-same-as-the-first structure isn’t reductive. Much like when a song’s chorus is so good you find yourself hoping they’ll do it one more time, all of “Von dutch” is that good. By all means, repeat it! There’s the icy, disaffected cool of “360,” an all-timer in her catalog already—where Charli absolutely floats over a simple but thrilling beat from Cook and Cirkut. Its video is packed with It Girls like Chloe Sevigny, Rachel Sennott and Alex Consani, as are its lyrics. There’s no reason that a song whose chorus namedrops Julia Fox should work so well, but it just does!

As with many past Charli projects, the final song is one of the most remarkable she’s ever done. As with Pop 2’s beloved closer “Track 10” and how i’m feeling now’s “visions,” the uproarious “365” is loaded with ambition and slamming bass. The beat from “360” is repurposed and serves as a bedrock for a more twisted and mangled version of itself. If “360” is made for the pregame, “365” was cut straight from the rock of late night bathroom key bumps one takes to straighten themselves out after hours of partying. As it comes in for a landing, the high-pitched “bumpin’ that!” refrain hits the runway sharply, allowing the album to recalibrate back into itself on an endless loop. “365” is all the more rewarding thanks to the anxiety-riddled songs that came before it. Hearing Charli set those emotions aside and fall into an electrifying, dancey void makes that abandon feel more earned and more electric.

BRAT puts Charli XCX in a curious position: Even as she ponders her future and reflects on her career, she’s doing it in a way that burrows further into her own niches. BRAT is one of her least immediately accessible records yet. Instead, it plays up the aspects of her campy, fascinating sound that longtime fans love. In that sense, she’s following the lead of the artists at her level. Luckily for Charli, none of her peers are making anything as singular as she is.

Eric Bennett is a music critic in Philadelphia with bylines at Pitchfork, Post-Trash and The Alternative. They are also a co-host of Endless Scroll, a weekly podcast covering the intersection of music and internet culture. You can follow them on Twitter @violet_by_hole.

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