In the lead up to the release of Sucker, 22 year old musician Charli XCX (real name Charlotte Emma Aitchison) warned that some people might hate the record, expressing her belief that the songs on the album fell into the category of ‘bubblegum punk.’ She is probably wrong on the first count – I can’t imagine Sucker being anything but a smash hit in terms of its sales – and definitely wrong on the second. Punk music has always been defined by its rejection of convention and rules, and sonically, Sucker is about as conventional as they come.
The disparity between the record Aitchison claimed to making and the record she has actually turned in is most obvious on Break the Rules. Although she admits that the song was ‘translated…into something more pop’, she still claims the song was inspired by Swedish punk bands like Snuffed by the Yakuza. But as many times as Aitchison might chant the phrase ‘I don’t want to go to school/I just want to break the rules” she still plays it exceptionally safe. She doesn’t break the rules, she embraces them wholeheartedly, and the song ends up being a perfect example of the kind of ‘rebellion’ that is so standard and formulaic that it has become an institution in and of its self, with its own rules and hollow epithets.
Weak lyrical content ruins songs like London Queen and Breaking Up, with the former boasting what may well be one of the most laughably bad lines that pop music has given us this year: ‘when I’m driving on the wrong side of the road/I feel like JFK” Charli sings with an embarrassing sincerity.
The shadow of Sky Ferreira hangs over the whole of Sucker and some of the songs are so reminiscent of Ferreira’s far superior Night Time, My Time that they feel like parodies. Both Gold Coins and Die Tonight ape Ferreira so bad it hurts, and suffer by contrast.
Doing It and Body of My Own are the low points of an already not very good record, and while both attempt to express sentiments of rejecting authority and embracing angst, neither have a single note or lyric that resonates. They are anthems of a most clichéd revolution, backed by lifeless, sluggish electro that only serves to make the experience of listening to the songs the sonic equivalent of trudging through treacle.
Hanging Around boasts the most apt title of any of the songs – it’s the tenth track on the album, and by the time it lazily made its way to my ears, I did feel as though Aitchison was hanging around, like a rude guest overstaying her welcome. To make things worse, it’s followed immediately by Caught In the Middle, a song that has clichés the way a dog has fleas.
Before I can talk about Need Ur Love, the album closer, I have to admit the feelings I had towards Aitchison’s music before I listened to this album. Truth is, I came to Sucker as a self-confessed Charli XCX fan. Based on her work with Iggy Azaela and the single Boom Clap I was very ready to like this record. To my mind Aithcison was an exciting pop star, grungy and accessible in equal measure, capable of great things.
And here’s the twist: even after Sucker’s turgid anthems, I still believe that. Boom Clap is a great song, and the tracks that bookend this album – Sucker and Need Ur Love – are both brilliant. The former has a viciously satisfying degree of anger that never feels forced or insincere and the latter is like a broken dance hall anthem, reminiscent of TV On The Radio or Blood Orange at their most hurt and vengeful.
With those three tracks alone, Charli proves that she can be punk without trying to be. After all, trying hard not to care turns into the ultimate form of caring, and when Aitchison relaxes she is an effortlessly empowering singer – a pop punk icon not just on the surface, but through and through.