Photo Credit: Kenneth Cappello
Of the over 13,000 albums on the database of Metacritic – the review aggregation site – Charlie Puth’s debut Nine Track Mind holds the unfortunate distinction of having the 7th lowest critic’s score; Spin labeled it an “inoffensive dross,” while Q Magazine said that it “whimpers like a sad kitten.” With his newest, and self-titled, album, Puth attempts to combine the obvious commercial appeal of the multi-hit spawning Nine Track Mind with the superior musicianship of its more impressive but less successful successor Voicenotes.
One can’t help but admire the effort Puth has put behind marketing his third LP – using TikTok for virality (an approach that paid dividends, specifically, in the case of lead single “Light Switch”), taking advantage of his boyish good looks via a series of attention-grabbing photoshoots and social media posts and recruiting Jung Kook (a BTS megastar) to feature on “Left and Right.” But while the music of Charlie works in fits and starts, listening to it from start to finish, it’s hard not to feel as though the end product is less than the sum of its parts; unbefitting of the months of breathless anticipation it garnered.
Puth is clearly immensely talented, and also happens to have been gifted with a rare perfect pitch. The finest moments on Charlie are those where Puth effectively puts these talents on display – with subtle production flourishes on “Light Switch,” an earworm chorus with “That’s Hilarious” and disarming sincerity on “When You’re Sad I’m Sad.” But all three songs are also a testament to Puth’s tendency to undermine his best songs. There’s a lot to like about “Light Switch,” but the song’s chorus is such a downer, sonically, that it’s hard to see why anyone would go back to it. “That’s Hilarious,” meanwhile, is catchy but filled with biting lyrics that demand more vocal bite and commitment than Puth can muster. “When You’re Sad I’m Sad” is lyrically compelling and sung with more heart, but it’s frustrating that backdropping Puth’s words are tiring, overdone piano balladeering.
It’s hard to make great pure-pop – even the immensely impressive Rina Sawayama fumbled in her attempt to do so earlier this year – and Puth’s attempt here sounds like a pale imitation of his more critically successful peers (like Carly Rae Jepsen). “Loser” is synth-pop at its dullest while “Smells Like Me” commits the greatest sin a love song can do – unintentionally making its narrator unlikeable and uninteresting. Elsewhere, awkward pitch-shifting undermines “There’s A First Time For Everything,” while a lack of commitment to going pop-punk stops “Charlie Be Quiet!” from excelling. It’s frustrating that nearly eight years after his breakout hit “Marvin Gaye,” the best showcase we have for Puth’s talent is his viral behind-the-scenes TikToks and not his actual music.