Pop Culture

Album Review: Dua Lipa, ‘Radical Optimism’

As album titles go, Future Nostalgia served to encapsulate the particular aesthetic Dua Lipa was aiming for, one encompassing “a future of infinite possibilities while tapping into the sound and mood of some older music.” The philosophy of Radical Optimism, on the other hand, is broader and distinctly less musical. “Radical optimism in the way that I see it is this idea of rolling with the punches,” the pop star told Zane Lowe, which, okay? Lipa might be a canny enough pop star to poke fun at this concept in her Saturday Night Live monologue, but the majority of the album is humourless and entirely sincere, positioning itself as another pop-album-as-therapy-session instead of a dance album capable of moving the needle the way Future Nostagia did. Since its release, it’s become clear that timing was instrumental in the ubiquity of that album during the COVID lockdowns and beyond, and by the time of her Barbie soundtrack hit ‘Dance the Night’, Dua Lipa was ready to put an end to her retro disco phase.

Instead of Jamiroquai, Blondie, and Prince, she’s cited the likes of Massive Attack, Britpop, and psychedelia as inspirations for her new album. That’s more specific than talking about “the idea of going through chaos gracefully and feeling like you can weather any storm,” but it gives less of an actual, well, idea of what Lipa was seeking out of Radical Optimism. If you have spent time with any part of the album – even just the promotional singles – you’ll know those reference points hardly track, and Lipa sounds way more eager to move into a new era in her promotional zone than she does in her actual music. Which is fine – part of what made the dance music of Future Nostalgia so infectious was its effortlessness, and such a radical musical shift would sound forced. Rather than bringing in producers such as Danny L Harle and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker to materialize those influences, she uses them to add some exciting new sparkle and detail to songs still rooted in dancefloor escapism. The problem is that they just don’t have the same staying power.

A pop song lives and dies on its central conceit, which can be totally absurd – there’s a reason Sabrina Carpenter’s ‘Espresso’ is destined to be the song of the summer, despite the fact that disco revivalism seems to be wearing thin. Radical Optimism should have been packed with song of the summer contenders, and ‘Houdini’ is a perfect one: “Catch me or I go Houdini” is succinct, tongue-in-cheek, and memorable (if not quite as confounding as “That’s that me espresso”) and its escapist theme reverberates through the whole tune. But so much around it pales in comparison, even when relaying sentiments she’s excelled in previously: ‘Illusion’ has none of the alluring vigor of ‘Hallucinate’, and ‘Whatcha Doing’ is a telling case of Lipa singing about “heading for collision” while sounding perfectly poised. There’s no tension on an album so polished and overcooked. Another track centers on the line “If these walls could talk, they’d tell us to break up,” which even the lovers in question might scoff at if one were to utter the words out loud. But ‘These Walls’ plays it totally earnest, and the wistfulness comes off totally awkward.

There’s nothing wrong with a radically optimistic pop album with mass appeal. But these songs, all about various stages of a romantic relationship, are frustratingly polite and dull, not to mention corny and perplexing. ‘These Walls’ is a hypothetical when it sounds like it should be a plea, while ‘Falling Forever’ makes romantic euphoria sound like an uphill battle, as if oddly responding to the “heading for collision” cue instead of “just keep getting better.” Elsewhere, oddness works to the album’s benefit, like when it gestures toward flamenco on ‘Maria’ and ‘French Exit’, the album’s best non-singles. ‘Maria’ finds Lipa addressing a lover’s ex with a sense of curiosity that’s layered and intriguing, even while sticking to Lipa’s habit of not divulging too much. But when she sings about an ex’s new relationship on the closer ‘Happy for You’, she once again plays it entirely straight, even with lines like “Together you look hot as hell,” and it just falls flat. It doesn’t take long to get the idea of Radical Optimism; too often, though, the emotion falls by the wayside.

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