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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Music Review: Dua Lipa's 'Radical Optimism' is controlled dance pop

    This cover image released by Warner Music shows "Radical Optimism" by Dua Lipa. (Warner via AP)

    In the chorus of “Whatcha Doing," the fifth track on Dua Lipa's latest album, she sings: “But if control is my religion / And I'm headed for collision / Lost my 20/20 vision," referencing the unexpected pull of a new partner.

    That sentiment proves true on “Radical Optimism," a controlled collection of dance tracks, ripe with earworms. Control is Lipa's religion — often for better, sometimes for worse.

    Lipa, 28, won the Grammy for best new artist in 2019, after a four-year stretch that saw her release a debut album to critical and commercial success and then emerge as a radio mainstay with the supremely catchy single “New Rules." But it was 2020’s “Future Nostalgia” that solidified Lipa’s place in pop music: She was not only a vocal force, but a proven hitmaker.

    “Levitating,” that album’s lead single, spent 77 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 — the longest time spent on the chart for a song by a woman — and was named Billboard’s No. 1 song of 2021, despite never reaching the top spot in the weekly charts (it peaked at No. 2). It fit easily within Lipa’s roster of enduring radio and dancehall hits, a list that began with “New Rules” and expanded to include “IDGAF,” “One Kiss,” “Physical,” “Don't Start Now” and most recently, “Dance the Night,” the existential crisis-inducing dance track featured in “Barbie.”

    That's all a hard act to follow. “Radical Optimism" has, in some ways, already pulled its weight — largely because the tracks released ahead of the album — “Houdini,” “Illusion” and “Training Season” — have the classic Lipa hooks that first drove her rise, making for easy pop listening: “Catch me or I go Houdini” — nice — “you think I’m gonna fall for an illusion” — no — “training season’s over” — got it.

    Told in Lipa's confident tone, these lyrical quips paint an energetic but vague image of love lost, found and forgiven. Lipa doesn’t typically include overly specific references to her own life in her love songs, instead distilling experiences into tight phrases that capture just enough to make them relatable without requiring much analysis. In that sense, there’s a controlled familiarity to “Radical Optimism” — one that Lipa is clearly capable of harnessing to coax listeners into her commanding beats, and into a dance.

    In the album’s best moments, that sense of familiarity not only works to Lipa’s advantage but also proves that she is fluent in the language of modern pop music. In others, it muddies the thematic vision of “Radical Optimism" that Lipa and the album are pushing — which might be stronger told with a fresh pop dialect.

    Lipa worked with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker on parts of the album, telling AP that she had sought his collaboration since making her first record. Parker’s influence is heard in the album’s strongest tracks: “Houdini” and “Illusion." (Lipa chose the right lead singles, it seems, so much so that their power weakens the punch of the rest of the album.)

    There are other bright spots: Lipa's soaring vocals on “Falling Forever" are sure to mobilize both dancers and singers. “Happy For You,” about looking back on a relationship and being happy with how both parties have moved on, is perhaps the most personally revealing of Lipa's real-life optimism.

    “Anything For Love” sees Lipa attempt to free herself of the control that often sharpens her tracks. The song starts with Lipa in conversation in the studio before evolving into a piano-backed ballad and then an upbeat and layered production. The pieces are all strong, but the track ends before that collaged vision can fully coalesce, leaving it feeling unrealized.

    But if “End Of An Era," the album's opening track, is to “Radical Optimism” what “Future Nostalgia” was to its namesake album, Lipa knows this is just the beginning of a shift: “One chapter might be done, God knows I had some fun / New one has just begun,” she sings.

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