May 30, 2024

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Dua Lipa: Radical Optimism review – a banger-filled missive from dating land | Dua Lipa


Dua Lipa’s last album, 2020’s Future Nostalgia, moved the cultural dial. Released into the pandemic, it was ubiquitous, neon-hued and life-affirming, winning two Brits and her third Grammy overall, confirming Lipa as an international superstar. It also kicked off a disco revival boom echoed through numerous other artists, not least dance-pop veteran Kylie Minogue, Róisín Murphy and Jessie Ware. Even Beyoncé went disco for her Renaissance (2022), saluting Black queer culture.

But in the video for Lipa’s Barbie soundtrack hit of 2023, Dance the Night, a mirror ball shatters. And the messaging around Lipa’s third album, Radical Optimism, has been keen to fast-forward her into a new era, establish the requisite fresh narrative and, perhaps, move the dial again.

There has been some loose talk of Lipa being inspired, this time around, by Primal Scream’s 1991 LP Screamadelica and Massive Attack; of the Britpop 90s and Gorillaz; of the north London Albanian singer turning to low-slung British source material rather than Studio 54. Alongside Lipa’s go-to co-writer, Caroline Ailin, the writing-production team notably features Kevin “Tame Impala” Parker, known for his heavy-lidded, synth-rock soundscapes; hitmaker Tobias Jesso Jr (Adele, Harry Styles); and former PC Music enfant terrible turned Caroline Polachek collaborator Danny L Harle, whose presence hints that hyperpop might be this album’s harder-hitting substitute for 70s grooves.

Confusingly – or, perhaps, obviously – not one of the tracks released so far has sounded anything like the aural equivalent of the white horse from Studio 54 running down a London street, wild-eyed and mysteriously bloodied, which is to say, the music of the 80s/90s cusp, laced with rave psychedelia and tweaked hard a la Harle’s 2021 album Harlecore. They all sound, reassuringly, like Lipa songs: female alpha dance pop in which Lipa shares hard lessons from her love life.

Lead track Houdini packs in icy synths and a carnivorous rhythm. Illusion rolls its eyes at romance with hi-NRG verve. Training Season, the nimblest of them all, packs frissons of Abba and Eurodisco into its assured takedown of sub-par men. All is well: it’s Lipa’s third album, no radical, root-and-branch reinvention of her very successful formula.

Yes, Parker’s synths are regularly audible throughout, giving Radical Optimism a nice analogue-sounding sheen, and the odd guitar and some deft retro production details keep the listener’s ears pricking up, but not so much it distracts from the record’s job: to maintain Lipa’s strike rate as a purveyor of romantic reckonings you can move to. Songs such as Whatcha Doing, replete with classy analogue synth arpeggios and a purring 80s engine, or French Exit, which reprises Houdini’s escape artist theme, this time with a Spanish guitar and a drum kit. There’s even a joke built into the track listing: Anything for Love pretends to be a piano ballad. That would be terrible news for this dancing queen, who thus far has left the mopey diva antics well alone. With an almost audible wink, the tracks swiftly deploys a funky 80s groove.

The pre-release talk around this record’s musical direction is not its only red herring. That title, Radical Optimism, tilts loftily at a personal philosophy for difficult times. The world is a hard place to be, and Lipa has spoken out about innocents displaced by war and the Palestinian cause. But the album seems to imply a musical statement about how to exist now, which that these 11 songs – 100% about romantic relationships – don’t quite back up.

Radical Optimism, then, is best enjoyed as a quality missive from dating land that takes some nuanced risks, rather than any kind of wider state-of-2024 address that Screamadelica’s producer, the late Andrew Weatherall, would recognise as homage. Songs about the delusions and frustrations of love are neither new nor rare; there’s Taylor Swift’s recent double album, for one.

But it’s how Lipa tells them that makes her position rock-solid as an illustrious purveyor of club-toilet-queue advice. Despite faintly psych-tinged tracks such as Happy for You, all birdsong, live-sounding drums and burbly synth closure, wishing an ex all the best with no hint of sarcasm, Lipa’s more direct songs win the day here. These Walls is the pithiest of the unreleased tracks. “If these walls could talk,” sings Lipa, of a fading relationship, “they’d say ‘enough’, they’d say ‘give up’, they’d say, ‘you know you’re fucked’.”

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Kissing a load of frogs before your prince comes does, indeed, require industrial quantities of self-knowledge and, yes, radical optimism. This is an album that, as with previous Lipa outings, preaches agency and self-worth; her high bar for distilling past dance forms into present pop bangers is maintained, whatever the spin.



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