Music Review: Charli Xcx's 'BRat' Swings Between Hedonism And Anxiety, Cult Classic And Pop Party

This cover image released by Atlantic Records shows "brat" by Charli XCX. (Atlantic Records via AP)
This cover image released by Atlantic Records shows "brat" by Charli XCX. (Atlantic Records via AP)

English pop singer-songwriter Charli XCX 's sixth album, “Brat,” oscillates between hedonism and anxiety — the euphoria of a late night on the dancefloor and the creeping disquietude of the morning after — as much as it does her in-between status as pop queen of the underground and sometimes mainstream success story.

The latter has arrived a few times in her career, like in her contribution to the blockbuster “Barbie” soundtrack, her feature on Iggy Azalea's once-inescapable “Fancy,” and ditto for Icona Pop's 2012 hit “I Love It,” which she also co-wrote. Something started to shift in 2016, around her “Vroom Vroom” EP, when Charli XCX perhaps realized pop superstardom wasn't for her — she's long-suffered from being a bit too cult-cool, too forthright for the A-list like her soon-to-be tourmate Troye Sivan — and began collaborating with the future-seeking, hyperpop PC Music collective, including the late, innovative Sophie (the subject of the thoughtful tribute “So I” ) and A.G. Cook, who executive produced “Brat.”

This album builds from the foundation of her previous work, of course, with its brash, bombastic synth-pop — but returns to her U.K. rave roots. Recent single “360” is the intersection of both, an ode to the internet’s outsider It-girls — a quality mirrored in the paparazzi-pop and Y2K bravado of “Von Dutch” and the hyper-referentiality of “Club Classics.” There, she name drops a cool-girl canon of musicians she’d like to dance to and with: Sophie, Cook, the DJ Hudson Mohawke and her fiancé George Daniel of English pop-rock band The 1975.”

“Everything is Romantic" opens with gorgeous strings and woodwinds as Charli XCX's talk-sings about falling in love before the song detours into U.K. garage. It's a peculiarly lavish combination, a one-song case for subwoofers reaching the same kind of emotional ascendency associated with orchestral music.

But interwoven in addictive songs about seeking pleasure and status is also a kind of insecurity: “Rewind” is a club banger about poor body image, not feeling successful enough, concerning yourself with things like chart position. ( "Boom Clap" fans may want to start here, but prepare themselves for a particularly confessional Charli.) “Apple” considers familial legacy; “Girl, So Confusing,” teases a rivalry with another pop performer.

It's all effortlessly danceable, both the moments of metaphysical frustration and chemical elation.

But the tension at the heart of “Brat” is best illustrated in the final two tracks, arguably the most gorgeous and soul-spilling of the 15-song collection. On the penultimate “I Think About It All the Time,” after 13 songs of pulsating rhythms tackling love, loss, life and career, she leaves the club to consider motherhood.

Would having a child give her a new sense of purpose? Would she become a different person?

“And a baby might be mine/‘Cause maybe one day I might/If I don’t run out of time/Would it make me miss all my freedom?," she sings, her phrasing unraveling into a sweet hum. “Should I stop my birth control?/'Cause my career feels so small/In the existential scheme of it all.”

Spoiler alert: She doesn't have the answers, at least, not right now. Closer “365” returns to the cheery production of opener “360" before unraveling into something much harder. And then there she is, back on the dancefloor, drink in hand, swaying in the haze of an overactive smoke machine.


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