Austin – Future listeners won’t have trouble pegging the early Charli XCX as music from circa 2013. That’s not a knock against Charli or last year’s praise-deserving True Romance. All I mean is that it bears pointing out Sucker’s less obvious vintage. Its raw material is taken from an earlier era, mostly punk and power pop. In place of consistent songwriting, this record—out this week on Neon Gold/Atlantic Records—structures itself more around attitude. Even that comes from another time, from riot grrrl, girl power, and perhaps a slightly more mature Avril Lavigne. As much as I’d like that to be an original and penetrating insight, she’s pretty much said so herself.
If I had to guess, I’d say Sucker is a product of Charli’s recently secured, honest-to-goodness stardom. The British sensation just scored two Grammy nominations—including Record of the Year for her collaboration with Iggy Azalea—and was the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.” She seems eager to put her personality up front this time, and to make a record I suspect all musicians want to make: semi-covers of their favorite music. I may need to backtrack here, because I’ve made this sound like a bad record. It’s not! There’s intelligence to its touches of punk and power pop, clear signs that Charli knows what she’s doing. Whether you like it depends on your tolerance for lyrics like “I don’t wanna’ go to school, I just wanna’ break the rules.” But if you can appreciate that principled adolescence then there’s much to love here.
It’s not like Charli dumped her old sound altogether. Only that, on most songs, she subdued the keyboards to make room for good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll, guitar and bass music. Where the songs are more recognizably Charli you get a few gems: “Die Tonight” is one of the better entries in the youngsters-party-til-we-drop sub-genre pioneered by Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, and Lorde. It’s the most endearing I’ve heard, anyway. “Doing It” offers something similar except for its darkly tinted sound. There’s more urgency to its hedonism, which is both refreshing and ear catching.
Speaking of ear catching, those rock songs! Charli really earns that sudden swerve to a different kind of sound. “London Queen” may have some synth-pop backing up guitar and bass, but beyond that it’s a checklist of what made the Ramones and early punk so great—pumping 8-note bass, drum breaks, and “Oi! Oi!” in all the right places. “Famous” sounds like a garage rock group tried to rewrite “Boom Clap.” “Body of My Own” will remind you of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” with the minor verse/poppy chorus contrast. It’s not as spot on as “London Queen”—there’s none of Sting’s distinctive bass playing. On the other hand, you avoid Sting’s lyrics. Fair trade, overall.
“Boom Clap” is in a weird position here as a massive single with no prior album release, yet little in common with the other material. Mostly that’s an academic note. “Boom Clap” is much appreciated. It’s just that it’s drawing attention to how different these songs are. Difference is a promising thing here, especially from an artist who has accumulated six years’ experience writing and recording music at just 22. She’s been recording since 2008, giving her several years of craft honing already under her belt. There’s lots of time yet to see her generate some great records.
As it stands, Sucker falls short of great, stopping between good and very good. These songs have immediate appeal but start to lag after a while. Even with the number of listens it takes to write this review, many of these songs are starting to lose luster. That’s not such a bad thing. Lots of good records lack long-term staying power. Sucker is one that, short shelf life aside, is worth it while it lasts.