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Absence dominates Dua Lipa’s dull and weightless Radical Optimism

"Radical Optimism"

Release date: 03 May 2024
Dua Lipa Radical Optimism cover
03 May 2024, 00:01 Written by Claire Biddles

Who is Dua Lipa?

The pop star, not necessarily the person. For her 2017 self-titled debut, the English-Albanian singer tried her hand at a smorgasbord of then-trendy pop modes, among them tropical (“New Rules”), 80s drive-time (“Be the One”) and acoustic soul (“Thinking ‘Bout You”). None were more convincing than the brash persona she debuted on “IDGAF” and “Blow Your Mind (Mwah)” – an attitude that endured for her second album, 2020’s ubiquitous, unsurprisingly retro-futurist Future Nostalgia. Think of Dua Lipa now, and this assertive but somehow sexless person springs to mind; either bouncing back from a break-up or helping you bounce back from yours, determined and clear-eyed in pursuit of nothing in particular.

It’s already been noted that in today’s climate of Lore Pop – Taylor, Beyonce, Olivia – Dua Lipa is an extreme outlier. Her lyrics give nothing away, she has the public persona of an Instagram model, and the most notable aspect of her personal life is that she likes going on holiday a lot. In a way, it’s a relief to have a pop girl whose music can be understood without a 48-hour intensive course in their backstory. But it’s hard to stomach that the only two options for female pop stars in 2024 are a (sometimes musically compelling!) gossip delivery system or a default Sim (popstar expansion pack version). On her third album Radical Optimism, Lipa betrays no interest in troubling this dichotomy.

Lipa has described Radical Optimism as indebted to both 1990s rave culture and psychedelia. The intriguing addition of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and producer/remixer Danny L. Harle as producers and co-writers suggests that Lipa was at least serious about her intentions, but these influences don’t really come to fruition. Opener “End of an Era” introduces the album’s mood as more rooted in balearic house: all sun-warmed synths, laid-back beats and optimistic lyrics about a holiday romance. It’s all very effortless, until a stilted spoken word section kills the mood (“another girl falls in love, another girl leaves the club” – ahh, the duality of woman). The catchy “French Exit” sustains the vibe with a gorgeous, distinctly Mediterranean guitar/drum duet, but Lipa again breaks the mood with her dorky spoken French. Spoken word bits are often awkward, but it feels significant here that what magnetism Lipa possesses doesn’t carry over when she’s required to be more informal, more ostensibly human.

The propulsive “Houdini” is deathly addictive, a fantastic first single choice which continues Future Nostalgia’s aerobics-core disco revival. “Whatcha Doing” is also in the vein, but unfortunately sounds like a re-run of Lipa’s Barbie soundtrack single “Dance the Night”. Another single, “Illusion”, is a showcase of Lipa in possibly her most fitting role; that of dance single vocalist. Here she is tasked with embodying known emotional signifiers and tropes rather than creating her own. “Falling Forever” is a bold attempt at a more avant-garde kind of dance track, but just sounds bizarre, and curiously like it’s being played at 1.25x speed. The “Running Up That Hill” drum fill is a neat steal in theory, but its gravitas doesn’t serve the song. There’s a few more unexpected bits of instrumentation on the album – like the flute in the mid-tempo “Maria” – but they all sound like late add-ons to spice up the palette of synths, beats and Spanish guitar.

When Lipa breaks out of the dance-pop mold, her confidence and conviction drops substantially. “These Walls” is a more introspective take on the breezy, rooftop terrace mood of much of the album, but aside from a woozy guitar line it’s bland and corny, its production and lyrics giving Natasha Bedingfield-lite (“If these walls could talk / They’d tell us to break up” – really?). The closing track “Happy For You” radiates zen feelings about an ex’s new relationship, and even calls back to an earlier Lipa hit (“Together you look hot as hell”) but it’s weightless, dull and lacking, as though the peace Lipa is describing could just passively happen to a person, rather than be the result of hard work or struggle. As the album fades out, the lasting impression is absence – of a twist in the tale, a subtle kernel of doubt, the weight of experience.

Nobody needs to know the details of Lipa’s real life to lend her songs weight, but there should still be something in her performance, delivery, songwriting or production that sets them apart from platitudes, from background noise. In her dance-pop singles, she’s proven that she can do the ‘pop’ part, but the ‘star’ is still lacking.

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