2014’s best pop albums are connected by the fact that they boast creative visions and an uncompromising confidence in executing them. Whether it’s the neo-soul of Girl or the synth-driven nostalgia of 1989, releases from Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, Katy B, and Pharrell share an unpredictability and adventurousness that managed to breathe life into the mainstream pop scene. Sucker, the sophomore release from Charli XCX, doesn’t quite live up to the same standard, but it does craft a distinct sound that represents a significant step forward in turning her into a bona fide solo act.
In the past, Charli XCX was best delivered in small doses, shining when given a guest spot. Her sing-along hook was the best part of Iggy Azalea’s smash hit “Fancy,” and she was integral to (co-writing and singing) Icona Pop’s hugely successful “I Love It.” On 2013’s True Romance though, when forced to carry an entire album, her thin voice and shout-out vocal stylings contributed to a weary listening experience. Sucker is different, though, trading True Romance’s punishing, sub-Sleigh Bells cock-pop–all polished up for the radio–for a more refined, but still sonically maximized approach.
Sucker is a lot about identity, so perhaps it’s no accident that it’s the first time a Charli XCX record is imbued with a personality that, if not relatable, is absolutely compelling. The title track includes the repeated line, “You said you want to bang? Well, fuck you, sucker,” and Charli XCX delivers it with such glee and viciousness that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the sentiment. “Breaking Up” has an undeniably catchy chorus—“Everything was wrong with you / So breaking up was easy to do”—and is the kind of power chord-driven stomper that made “I Love It” such a hit. “Boom Clap,” the album’s first single, originally released on the The Fault In Our Stars soundtrack, contains one of the most memorable melodies on the record. Patrik Berger, the Swedish producer extraordinaire who’s had a hand in hits from Lana Del Rey, Robyn, and also produced “I Love It,” brings a Cliff Martinez-inspired atmosphere to the track, while Charli XCX uses repetition and staccato to drive the chorus home and emphasize the theme of longing. Well-worn musings on love and lust permeate the album, but Charli XCX finds a balance between weariness and empowerment that steers the album clear of complacency and cliché.
Sucker still has moments of thematic simplicity and overbearing production. “Break The Rules” in particular is a dud; it shoots for a rebellious attitude, but its narrative of skipping school, getting high, and going to the “discotheque” is more contrived and culturally stale than it is inspired. But this is an album brimming with more personality and ingenuity than her previous efforts, a sentiment that’s best embodied by the staggering closing track “Need Ur Luv.” Part sunshine pop, part ’60s girl group anthem, it’s the most gloriously bouncy, infectious moment on the record. It’s pure joy, even if the lyrics suggest complicated love. (What love isn’t, though?) There’s maturity and depth to the songwriting and production on that track that suggest a way forward for Charli XCX, and coupled with the other hits on the record, make Sucker an accomplished, if fitful listen.