Dua Lipa - Radical Optimism: The Music Week Review

Dua Lipa - Radical Optimism: The Music Week Review

Dua Lipa’s third album has finally arrived, and now begins the scramble to find out what defines her Radical Optimism era, the essence of her latest iteration. 

Thanks to the success of the ubiquitous, chart-topping Future Nostalgia (which has 737,616 sales, according to the Official Charts Company), her defining role in last year’s Barbie takeover and partnerships with brands including YSL and Versace, this month's Music Week cover star has assumed icon status in the four years that have elapsed since her last record. Her management and publishing are now taken care of by her very own company Radical22, which also represents her interests in books, publishing, TV production and her Sunny Hill Festival. Now, Lipa is not only a megastar in music terms, but a businesswoman set on expanding her reach into every facet of popular culture. 

All of which makes the heart, soul and will to experiment that form the core of Radical Optimism stand out. More than that, they’re a joy. On the evidence of these 11 tracks, Lipa seems more of a mate than a megastar, someone telling you about their life as if over a drink or via a fast-fingered WhatsApp exchange, nails tap-tapping on the phone screen. Musically, the record feels real, bereft of tricks or gimmicks, the kind of thing a band might make, rather than a major label pop star.

With Kevin Parker, the psychedelically-inclined mind behind Tame Impala and classically trained rave enthusiast Danny L Harle behind most of the music (with Caroline Ailin and Tobias Jesso Jr co-writing on the bulk of the lyrics), Lipa has concocted an album where the best bits are the stranger, more indulgent ones. The first such example is Parker’s bass guitar line on housey opener End Of An Era, which succeeds in anchoring the song perfectly while also wandering off in various directions on its own, as if in a daydream. Synths and Lipa’s vocal (which rips through the entire record) offer indelible pop melody, but there’s real fun to be had following the sounds that lie beneath, licks and touches that dent any image of Lipa as a purveyor of pristine chart fodder. 

There’s the quick one-two of intro singles Houdini and Training Season, aired at the Grammys and the BRITs already this year and now well established as major pop records. In the context of Radical Optimism, their oddness in comparison with much of what is jostling alongside them for position on radio playlists and the singles chart stands out all the more. The FX on Houdini rattle and creak, Training Season’s needling melody burrows into the brain. Watcha Doing brings to life the head-spinning feeling of a new relationship (‘Whatcha doing to me baby?/I’m scared to death/That you might be the one to change me’) over another colossal bassline.

There are dalliances with other collaborators - the roaring Falling Forever and the shapeshifting ballad/floorfiller Anything For Love are helmed by Ian Kirkpatrick, who produced New Rules and Don’t Start Now, while Dance The Night producer Andrew Wyatt is behind Maria’s easy groove - but Radical Optimism succeeds primarily because of Lipa’s core of new partners. The fact that Houdini, Watcha Doing and Illusion came together in their first week of recording says something about the organic nature of their bond, but the most magical moment is saved for last. 

Closer Happy For You articulates the weirdness of feeling happy for an ex who finds a new relationship, nailing the emotional conflict with lines such as, ‘I see where you’re at now, you picked up the pieces/And then you gave them to somebody else’. Again, the slippery, shapeshifting nature of the music adds an extra dimension, with Kevin Parker sampling his own vocal and bending it around Lipa’s. There’s a solo that evokes the same rush on every listen, like much of what’s on the record, it speaks to the confidence and ambition of the star behind it. More emotionally honest, more sonically ambitious and more wilfully left of centre than ever before, Radical Optimism strips away any excess prompted by the mania that now surrounds Lipa and paints her merely as a musician approaching the peak of her powers, eager to push herself in whatever direction feels right. In that sense, she chose the perfect title.

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