Album Review: Charli XCX – BRAT

[Atlantic; 2024]

Charli XCX is a sentimentalist. At a glance, someone whose work has remained unflinchingly focused on a chronically online party girl ethos is hardly shooting for emotionality, but there was always something deeper underscoring her work. 2020’s How I’m Feeling Now made the subtext text with distorted musings on how much she missed her parties and her friends and how much those things meant to her. It was a quarantine-era masterpiece of longing that showed how much heartfelt sincerity existed at the core of the party girl lifestyle. Now, following 2022’s impersonal though undeniably well-crafted Crash, Charli is ready to take us on a new character exploration, that of the BRAT.

The brat in this case is the party girl, now more unapologetic and confident than ever. Lead single “Von dutch” is a club-ready piece of bravado of the kind that shows exactly why no one could make the music Charli makes. Her processed voice becomes one with the pulsating beat as she goes through braggadocios lyrics that, to her credit, never feel unearned. She is truly the cult classic that still pops. After over a decade of acclaim, “Von dutch” is Charli bringing in all the exciting energy of a victory lap. Even within her confident self-aggrandizing though, one can see the cracks in the foundation the artist is willing to show.

Album opener “360” is an it-girl anthem with a watertight groove and an undeniably catchy hook. The lyrics show Charli unafraid to revel in her impact, with lines like “I’m your favorite reference baby” and “When you’re in the mirror you’re just looking at me”. Yet in the music video, before she can focus on her song she has to pause and make sure the life cycle of the ‘hot internet girl’ keeps moving. At once, she will both poke fun at the shallow nature of the admiration she has acquired and brag about it. Even a song like “Club classics”, a perfect club banger that proved its worth as a highlight of her Boiler Room set, betrays a hint of emotion when Charli namedrops the late great Sophie. It’s a small nod, but when taken in the context of how seriously the singer takes partying, it’s meaningful.

At its most fun, BRAT never shakes the many emotions Charli is carrying. The bouncy “Talk talk” is captivatingly melodic and bound to bring a listener to the dance floor, yet audio looseness is paired with lyrical awkwardness as the singer talks, presumably to herself, about how much she wishes a certain someone would approach her. “Girl, so confusing” brings back the joyful spark of early 2010s pop while Charli describes the uncomfortable experience of trying to maintain a friendship with an unspecified female singer. Atop the perfect party tunes, Charli XCX just won’t stop being neurotic. You can’t say she is not relatable.

“Rewind” is familiar territory, in that it’s a summer bop about looking back at good times, reminiscent of her song “1999”. The intensity, however, is raised, both through a more hyperpop sound and through more blunt lyrics about a time when the artist was less encumbered by insecurities. The song runs through body image issues, career issues, and more. Particularly worth highlighting is the line “I used to never think about Billboard / but now I started thinking again / wondering about whether I think I deserve commercial success”, which can be expected to produce at least a little discourse.

The centerpiece of BRAT’s sonic swerves though, is “Everything Is Romantic”. The lyrics, a laundry list of things the artist finds beauty in paired with multiple hooks, create an emotional effect, while the contrasts between soft melodies and heavy bass create the kind of off-kilter yet club-ready sonic experience you’d expect in an Arca record. Truly a moment of creative excellence.

While the party sounds of BRAT are what brings you into the record, it gets more interesting the more Charli leans into the uneasy, the messy, and the self-reflecting. From the loud synths to how she bellows out the chorus, “Sympathy is a knife” is an extremely compelling cry for help where the singer goes into detail about how the presence of another girl has her caught up in insecure anxieties she can’t shake.

“So I” is particularly specific about its muse, again reflecting on her frequent collaborator, the late Sophie. It is an intimate and very beauty description of their relationship, Charli’s regrets about it and her feelings towards the memory. It is a very vulnerable moment, particularly thanks to the singer’s ever-relatable transparency on what she wishes she had done differently. It would be hard to imagine a better tribute for Sophie.

Leaning into the idiosyncrasies of her ideas, Charli closes off the record with the pairing of “I think about it all the time” and “365”. The former is a simple reflection about Charli’s struggle to decide whether motherhood is the right way for her, where the simple melody and the hi-fi vocals create an extra air of intimacy that welcomes the listener into this intimate, uncomfortable conversation. In direct contrast, “365” is a remix of “360” that drags you right back to the club dancefloor, even more energetic and fun than the album opener. Charli is here to have a crisis on the dancefloor, and she closes things off with the most real crisis and the best dancefloor anthem.

Charli XCX’s constant reinventions have kept her in the vanguard and off the spotlight. No release of hers is ever a retread. As such, it’s not surprising that BRAT feels like something new. She has shed the sonic oddities for a record that is truly dancefloor ready and shed the metaphors for a record that is truly personal. Already an artist with an impressive legacy, with BRAT Charli is adding another jewel to her crown that will live on in playlists and DJ sets long after she inevitably abandons its aesthetic and sonic palate to reinvent herself once again. It is an exciting and emotional listening experience that feels both carefully masterful and sincerely unfiltered. Maybe Charli won’t get the commercial success she and many others believe she deserves, but those who listen will certainly recognize this album for the brilliant project it is.