Album Review: Dua Lipa – Radical Optimism

[Warner; 2024]

In 2013, Lady Gaga was coming off of the Fame and Born This Way albums with a level of simultaneous respect and acclaim it could be said the 21st century had yet to produce. Her next move in this hot streak was to go on a lengthy press tour where she discussed her desire to blend high art and pop music, as she approached the likes of Jeff Koons and Marina Abramović to lend credibility to this new endeavor. She was to bring art and pop together, with art in the front. Artpop, the album that followed, was not that. It underperformed by Gaga standards and had a less than stellar critical response due to not being the high art project many had hoped it would be. As the years passed, however, and the album became more and more detached from its press tour, Artpop grew into a fan favorite of Gaga’s discography, hailed not for its high art concepts but simply for the creativity and sincerity put into it, and how distinct it is from the rest of her work.

In 2024, it’s hard to remember we used to live in a world without Dua Lipa hits. Ever since 2017’s “New Rules”, Lipa has proven to be possibly the most commercially viable artist to break through, with various collaborations and solo hits underscoring her place as a reliable fixture of pop music. 2020’s Future Nostalgia was an early highlight in the surprisingly upbeat disco revival during and after the pandemic. An expertly handled promotion cycle, extended by the pandemic, allowed the project to produce three years of hits, before her contribution to the Barbie soundtrack, “Dance The Night”, gracefully concluded the era – marked by the crashing disco ball in its music video.

Since then, Dua Lipa has been in interviews discussing her personal growth and her desire to incorporate the sounds of Massive Attack, Oasis, and Gorillaz into her work. Kevin Parker, of Tame Impala fame, and Danny L Harle, Caroline Polachek’s main collaborator, were brought in to lend credibility to this new endeavor. She was to make an album inspired by trip-hop, Britpop, and psychedelia.

Radical Optimism, the album that has followed this build up, isn’t that. It underperforms by Dua Lipa standards, and, as leaks of alternative versions are shared, fans and critics are expressing disappointment. It’s hard not to judge the project for what it isn’t when expectations were so high.

With all of that in mind, what is Radical Optimism? Truly, not a whole lot. It may not be Future Nostalgia 2, but it shares its number of tracks and differs in length by just 42 seconds. Herein perhaps lies the problem: a Dua Lipa album may swerve from the formula, but never too far.

Lead single, “Houdini”, is exemplary of that. An energetic groove and a passionate performance by the singer make for an interesting next step for her sound, yet it can hardly be said it fully abandons disco. More illustrative still is its extended mix, which spends more time with its most 80s-adjacent elements and allows the sound to expand further. The second single, “Training Season”, is a better representation of the album’s sonic palette of synths, organic basslines, and guitar flourishes, but one listen to the extended version shows it could do without the immediacy built into it. Further building the case for giving ideas time to breathe is the much worse-received single “Illusion”, whose extended version adds enough quality parts to the song to make things like the extended syllable hook work a lot better. The new sound Dua Lipa chose is made up of many great elements, and while she can rise to meet them, it is questionable whether they can bend to fit the Dua Lipa mold.

In keeping with the struggle between artistic wants and commercial needs, a lot of the album sounds like the safest version of itself. Opener “End Of An Era” fits its title by presenting the most immediately recognizable version of the Parker-Harle sound, particularly with its bass and synth.

At the same time, Lipa delivers a fun performance, but there is little to keep the listener coming back. The mid-tempo sunshine of “These Walls” is a perfectly pleasant bit of pop drama that almost recalls her debut album, in that its quality hardly translates into personality. “French Exit” brings a drum and guitar forward groove and the lyrical tension of leaving without an explanation, creating a milder but more effective feel of immediacy than that of “Training Season”. “Anything For Love” is a red herring, much like the album’s promotion, as it starts by hinting at a ballad before bringing a light bass groove for the second verse and finishing without any truly striking moment. Closer “Happy For You” seemingly shoots for a more atmospheric sound, as Lipa’s voice is made to blend with the instrumental swell of the chorus before the synths fade out into an undeniably well-crafted end for the record.

You see parts of what should be interesting music throughout, but Radical Optimism seems more interested in never failing to be good than in succeeding at all at being excellent.

A Dua Lipa album still needs hits though, and there are certainly attempts at creating one. “Whatcha Doing” combines one of the better basslines with a driving percussion. Inspired synth choices and a wordy singalong pre-chorus make this one of the cuts in this record the listener will have a harder time getting off their head. “Falling Forever” dials up the drama in instrumental and singing alike. Lipa belting out the chorus atop a “Running Up That Hill” style beat is possibly the most strikingly theatrical moment in the whole record, and it’ll certainly make for an interesting showcase live. “Maria” is the most guitar-forward cut, and its inventive synth choices create a subtly energetic sound that will sneak up on you. It strikes possibly the best balance between being creative and undeniably catchy.

One striking feature of Dua Lipa’s previous blockbuster Future Nostalgia was how immediately memorable it was. It was quickly obvious that that album was bound to be a hit factory. Radical Optimism, meanwhile, leaves one confused as to what its purpose is. Repeated listens might make you think you’re listening to a record with part of it missing. It doesn’t sound like it’s stacked with three years of radio hits, as it is completely out of step with a pop landscape in some ways still colored by the aftermath of Dua Lipa’s previous era. It’s also not the grand next step of an auteur one might wish it were, as its most creative choices still don’t make it out of the realm of ‘safe’.

Dua Lipa eras are a slow burn, and her songs are known for taking a while to grow on people, but as it stands her elusive pop domination stands on shaky ground. Her next move will determine how much longevity she has. For the devoted fans, meanwhile, at least it can be said that at its worst her music is still worth listening to.