“Don’t show up/ Don’t come out!” sings Dua Lipa on “Don’t Start Now”. It’s as if the 24-year-old “alpha female” – who shot to fame in 2017 with smash hit “New Rules” – saw the pandemic lockdown coming and has gifted us with a perfect “dancercise album” to help us to bop our way to giddy elation throughout our long isolation.
Her sensational second album Future Nostalgia (originally scheduled for release next month but dropping now after online leaks and because “the thing we need right now is joy”) channels the zingy, electro-ambitions of the 1980s with remarkable freshness, given that the decade’s revival has now lasted about twice as long as the original period. Her nods to Madonna, Olivia Newton John, Prince, Debbie Harry and Nile Rodgers are direct and unblinking – mercifully free from the raised eyebrow of irony so often used to give retro sounds a modern topspin.
Although Lipa was born and raised in north London, her formative years of pop-discovery (from age 10-15) were spent in her parents’ native Kosovo. I wonder if that distance from London’s cosmopolitan superiority allowed her to embrace the cartoon joy of pop culture with an eastern European earnestness that might not have been considered cool back in Britain.
You’ve probably already heard singles “Don’t Start Now” and “Physical” – the new single that drop-kicks the Lycra-bounce of Newton-John’s 1981 hit of the same name into the 21st century. Back in the day, Newton-John was understandably uncomfortable about how her song’s unabashed sexuality – “There’s nothin’ left to talk about unless it’s horizontally” – would affect her good-girl image. Today, Lipa stares straight down the camera at us as she takes charge in her exercise video. “Hi. I’m Dua, and I’ll be your instructor today…” The husky mezzo that kept her out of the school choir (there were tears) is muscular with authority and doesn’t stand for any melismatic shilly-shallying. Each note gets down and gives her 20.
She keeps a leather-driving-gloved command over the wonky synths of “Levitating” and “Hallucinating” and the spacey spangle glitter gel noises of “Cool” – on which she sings of “burning up on you/ In control of what I do/ And I love the way you move.”
It’s invigorating to hear her use samples like barbells – lifting and flexing with them, not dancing around them like ornamental handbags. Best is her use of White Town’s 1997 “Your Woman” on “Love Again” – perhaps the most romantic song we’ve heard to date from a woman whose name actually means “love” in Albanian. White Town’s bedroom-made chart-topper (which itself sampled a 1930s song) was one of the first to flip the singer’s gender (a man sang he would “never be your woman”), and Lipa adds to the sense of head-messing by stirring strings into the mix while confessing she’s sinking her “teeth into disbelief”.
But I also love her use of the sexy-stuttering riff from INXS’s booty-call classic “Need You Tonight” on “Break My Heart”. You can picture whole families dancing to this together as kids’ and parents’ musical coordinates intersect.
Elsewhere she goes for full cartoon delight, rescuing the cowbell (last shamed by Robin Thicke) on the pulsating “Pretty Please” and dropping a full gum-popping sound effect on the Lily Allen-indebted “Good in Bed”, which finds her conversationally frank about “All that good pipe in the moonlight” with a guy who disappoints in every other way.
But alongside the silliness there’s an uncompromising acknowledgement of female empowerment that fans will expect from the “New Rules” singer. “It’s Not Me, It’s You” and “Boys Will Be Boys” both address issues of gender inequality. The latter comes towards the end and sees the six-foot star state: “It’s second nature to walk home/ Before the sun goes down/ And put your keys between your knuckles/ When there’s boys around/ Isn’t it funny how we laugh it off to hide our fear/ When there’s nothing funny here.”
It’s a sheer bliss that she can deliver these hard truths to a soundtrack that’s ridiculously leotard and leg warmers. Honestly, there isn’t a duff track on here. Every beat is elastic, every note and sample bold and shiny. Future Nostalgia is 37 minutes of pure sonic spandex.