It truly seems like you never know what to expect when you hit play on a Charlie Puth album. Not because he’s wildly experimental – but because he’s now delivered an awful album, an incredible one, and one that’s perfectly mediocre, the latter being his latest, CHARLIE. After the widely acclaimed pop-R&B fusion of 2018’s Voicenotes and a variety of intriguing one-off singles in the following years, the album that they belonged to was apparently scrapped after Puth received criticism from none other than his next-door neighbour, Elton John. Then he joined TikTok, and his latest tunes certainly feel catered to that platform. While Puth is obviously a wildly talented singer and songwriter – just wait for the next obnoxious late-night host to ask him about his perfect pitch again – his latest tracks can sometimes feel like he’s overthinking, trying to craft the perfect pop song. When combined with obvious attempts at virality that never go over as well as the natural stuff, it gets bogged down even over the course of a brief 12 tracks. Still, there are some classic pop thrills to be found amongst the rubble.
The opening track “That’s Hilarious” is the best one here from a musical standpoint, but you have to get past a pretty nasty attitude in the lyrics to truly appreciate it. Puth’s mockery and bitterness towards an ex-partner tearfully trying to win him back is hard to swallow, but the way the chords hit hard in the chorus and pull away just as fast in line with the percussion might make it all worth it. Puth’s harmonies are great here, building up into the critical moments of silence that make the song near-impossible not to move to. Lead single “Light Switch” comes up quickly as well, and while it’s one of the clearest TikTok-bait songs that you’ll ever hear, the switch sound built into the beat still gives me an inexplicable hit of dopamine. With its funk bassline, it’s probably the closest thing you’re going to get to Voicenotes on this project as well – it’s certainly hard to get out of your head. In between the two, however, we get “Charlie Be Quiet!” There’s an obnoxious number of artists trying to blatantly emulate The Kid LAROI’s mega-hit “Stay” right now, but Puth is actually the mind behind it, and you can tell. Adding in an obligatory pop-punk leaning angle to the formula, we get some unpalatable compressed heavy guitar sounds coming in behind his chorus, Puth simultaneously jumping up to a high octave that begins to border on Adam Levine’s grating territory.
For all of the hit songs that Puth has contributed to, “There’s A First Time for Everything” has to be the messiest song from a pop composition standpoint that he’s ever made. Even songs on his debut Nine Track Mind were at least competently made with the wrong ingredients. It almost feels like he’s trying his hand at the rising hyperpop trend with a regular pop framework, missing the parts that you need for it to work – it feels like he speeds through the song as the creeping 80s synth chords unfold in the back, jumping up to sudden high notes. The lyrics about a late-night party are incredibly on-the-nose and awkward as well, the rhyme scheme not lining up like you expect it to. “Smells Like Me” is another solid track with some lyrical grossness going on – the sparkly 80s chords persist into this one, Puth addressing them properly this time with an anthemic power ballad of sorts that certainly grew on me quite a lot – the triplet building up to the main motif is a classic technique pulled off well here. That being said, I don’t want to hear about laundry dipped in cologne or feel like indulging in Puth’s queasy fantasy of his smell following someone into a new relationship. Single “Left and Right,” with BTS’s Jungkook, closes out the first half with its boring, plodding melody. This is a song built around a BTS feature and a lyrical gimmick panning vocals back and forth in headphones, with zero thought put into the rest – when the songs are this bad, Puth’s Autotune and obnoxious vibrato really become evident.
The track “Loser” is another fun, driving pop track as Puth continues to demonstrate why he’s one of the most sought-after songwriters in the business – the song is certainly generic, but it stands out in this tracklist for following formulae nicely, all the way down to the way all of the motifs combine at the end. The syncopated guitars in the background give it more of a rhythmic edge, as Puth puts together another track that you’ll be singing tomorrow. “When You’re Sad I’m Sad” is the album’s dramatic piano ballad, but since it has some of the most surface level lyrics you’ll hear all year, it fails to connect in any meaningful way, while “Marks On My Neck” is a brief track that channels a little bit of the spirit of Panic! at the Disco’s Viva Las Vengeance. Starting from the overblown chorus right off the bat, it feels like a well-crafted pop machine beginning to fall apart, screws flying in every direction. This should all work, but it feels soulless enough that it doesn’t.
“Tears On My Piano” is the last truly nondescript track before things pick up slightly at the end once again. I mentioned how much Puth sounds like an overthinker – it took four years between albums, after all – and on this one it actually comes out in the lyrical content as he analyzes why his songs all sound so sad and tries to reverse it with a midtempo snoozer – save for a piano solo that briefly piques the interest. “I Don’t Think I Like Her” is a final bit of theatricality that’s likely going to be hit or miss for many – it’s one of those tracks that might be so bad, it’s good. With a booming, anthemic chorus and a key change (which I’m always a shameless sucker for), Puth tells the story of all the girls he falls for at the wrong time. “No More Drama” is a breezy closer that genuinely feels like the most human song on the project, Puth delivering some audible relief that he’s put all the things he’s been singing about behind him with a carefree melody.
With Puth’s track record, all hope shouldn’t be lost that we’ll hear another song as good as “Attention” or “How Long” again, but if it happens, I hope we don’t have to wait so long again. For now, one can only pray that he gets off of TikTok and starts putting his heart into it again.
Favourite Tracks: Light Switch, That’s Hilarious, Smells Like Me, Loser
Least Favourite Track: There’s A First Time For Everything