Charli XCX: Brat review | Laura Snapes’ album of the week

Estimated read time 6 min read

Charli XCX’s last album was designed to reach as many people as possible. Satisfying the contract she signed with Atlantic as a teenager, 2022’s Crash was a conceptual go-for-broke by a pop star who had made her name as a refusenik, save a few uneasy youthful flirtations with the mainstream. She swapped her avant garde collaborators for blue-chip songwriters, mastered slick choreo and duly interpolated old dance bangers. It worked, becoming her most successful album yet. Having simply decided to be successful and then pulled it off, most artists in her position would surely keep at it. Not Charli, who has since admitted that she couldn’t even listen to some of Crash, nor stomach the rictus-grin promo. The sleazy grind of Brat, her superb sixth album, is the palate cleanser, albeit one that tastes like cigarettes, vodka and chemical afterburn.

Indicative of her unique cult status, Charli has returned to Atlantic and also to the intimacy she shares with a devoted fanbase steeped in her 16-year evolution from DIY teenage raver to “your favourite reference, baby”, as she flexes on confidently minimalist opener 360. You’re DOA in pop right now without a wealth of lore – just ask poor Dua Lipa, whose sheeny surfaces no longer cut it. But Charli’s remains niche, the subject of Discord and Reddit communities rather than tabloid gossip (excepting perhaps her engagement to 1975 drummer George Daniel). For all Brat’s anxious lyrics about her celebrity status – including the ones in which she admits calling the paps on herself, because “everyone else does it constantly” – it makes no apologies for its insider energy.

The artwork for Brat.View image in fullscreen

Its singles operate on a first-name basis, peppered with references to Gabbriette, Julia [Fox], AG [Cook], George [Daniel], Mike [Skinner] and Sophie. The brilliant video for 360 features intimidating “hot internet girls” meeting to appoint their newest member; Chloë Sevigny’s cameo is the only concession to anyone over the age of 27. And there are songs about apparent pop rivalries that require a firm grasp of Twitter history. If you know, you know.

But Brat transcends exclusivity because Charli’s unbarred feelings of insecurity, bitchiness and obsession are so fiercely well observed that they make tedious footnotes irrelevant. They hit less like complaints about fame – pop’s most deadening theme – than profound observations on all kinds of relationships, not least how women end up constructing brusque personae to survive the stupid hell of socialisation. Charli’s Partygirl club nights may be famously impossible to get into, but here the only price of entry is having ever worried about whether you fit in. That and a high tolerance for bass.

Brat wears a prickly carapace as lure and defence. Unlike the crowdpleasing Crash, the textures here are defiantly underground – panel-beating, serrated, darkly bubbling with acid – made with the likes of Daniel, AG Cook, Easyfun, Hudson Mohawke and Gesaffelstein. It plots Charli’s history with dance music, from lifelong Aphex fan to bloghouse teen and PC Music doyenne with a sincere respect for trash. Addictive lead single Von Dutch echoes 2006’s turbo-revving Bodyrox hit Yeah Yeah; Mean Girls hat-tips to David Guetta. It’s the sound of nihilism and wayward dominance. Von Dutch taunts a jealous onlooker with a blaring, siren-like refrain – “I’m your number one” – destined to drive them even more insane. 360’s bookending twin 365 goes harder into Yeezus territory. B2B is a cold wound about being strung along. The tachycardiac Club Classics is insatiable, freaky dubstep about Charli and friends making exactly the kind of music that she wants to hear – and guess what, so do millions of others.

As much as Brat wears its bad attitude on its lurid green sleeve, it is also trenchant, raw and affecting. Charli’s sensitivity has always been evident to anyone undeterred by her brashness, yet her vulnerabilities have never been so widely exposed, and her conversational intimacy underscores their resonance. On anaesthetised ballad I Might Say Something Stupid, she’s feeling dejected at a celeb party: “I don’t feel like nothing special / I snag my tights out on the lawn chair,” she sings, perfectly encapsulating the moment of misfortune that affirms that, yes, you are dirt and everyone knows it. Such insufficiency can inspire defensive rivalries – Girl, So Confusing and Rewind channel detached, Uffie-style irony to convey how furiously banal it is to feel this way – or the cultivation of a harsh exterior. Nihilistic thumper Mean Girls is a love letter to today’s terrifying internet it-girl which understands not just how quickly she calcifies into cliche, but the love-hate feelings she inspires and also the security the pose offers.

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It’s part of Brat’s bitter truth: when such a monumentally successful pop star sings so often about failing to measure up to her peers, it shows how insidious these forces are for all of us. And potentially worse: the devastating So I is a tribute to Charli’s late collaborator Sophie which manages to be both glacially expansive and utterly crushed, as she regrets having shied away from the producer’s friendship, intimidated by her greatness, prior to her death at 34 in 2021. “You’re a hero / And a / Human,” she sings in a hymn to not letting inferiority complexes cheat you out of connection.

Also fleshing out Brat’s rattling skeleton are Charli’s lingering questions about whether the party might be over. The awestruck Everything Is Romantic narrates Charli’s visions from a trip to Pompeii, “a place that can make you change”, and the music’s reckless mutation between Hollywood swoon and hard baile funk embodies that alchemy. If true love is such a salve, then what might come next? I Think About It All the Time is like Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood set to girlish glitch – a disarming inquiry into whether Charli, 31, should have a baby; the knowledge it might inspire, the freedom it might snatch away. She hums what would usually be a floating synth line, taking us right inside her head and to the crux of her fears: “Should I stop my birth control? / ’Cos my career feels so small / In the existential scheme of it all.”

But whatever the stats and her self-esteem might say, it’s hard to think of another pop star whose vision is so expansive and generous, not least in her willingness to risk being seen as mean in order to say something true. Most of her superstar peers are busy making unrelatable music about how hard it is to be famous. Yet Charli has never lost sight of how hard it is to be human.


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