Dua Lipa - Radical Optimism album review: some real dance pop gems up there with the singer's best

 (PR Handout)
(PR Handout)

Landing at exactly the right time to boost the spirits of a nation of bored-senseless lockdowners, Dua Lipa’s second album, Future Nostalgia, didn’t just transform her into the pandemic’s answer to Vera Lynn, it elevated her to the big leagues.

While her self-titled debut boasted a smattering of hits that still stand up (New Rules, for one) the overall vision felt scattergun. Then came Future Nostalgia and its smooth, snappy nu-disco, which has now earned its rightful place as a 21st Century pop classic. It’s an enormously tough act to follow.

While Lipa’s Barbie soundtrack contribution Dance The Night was a continuation of Future Nostalgia’s stylish dance-pop, third album Radical Optimism strives for something different, with mixed results. While the singer teased a genuinely surprising set of influences in the run up ‒ psychedelia, trip-hop and Britpop ‒ the reality is that those influences are subtle ones.

While it might’ve been fun to hear Lipa going full Elastica, there’s none of that here. Instead, Portishead-styled washes of warm synth briefly break through on the skittish French Exit, while strums of guitar manifest on indie-pop moments These Walls and Maria.

Anything For Love, a conventional piano ballad that curveballs pleasingly into a synth-pop banger, opens with a snippet of candid studio chatter. While all of these small forays into other genres are pleasant flourishes, they don’t go in anywhere near hard enough.

As a result, it all falls slightly flat, and since the slower numbers are all frontloaded early in the tracklist, things also take a while to take off. The All Saints-flavoured closer Happy For You, which also reminds me of Lorde’s distinctly low-key album Solar Power, also feels like a puzzling finale.

It’s a shame, because among the slightly half-hearted experiments, Radical Optimism ‒ despite having a title that sounds like an inspirational fridge magnet ‒ boasts some real dance-pop gems which belong right at the top of her output.

While its straightforward lyrical themes (broadly speaking: ‘I’ve been wasting my time dating an absolute first-rate twat, but oh well, time to dump him and go out dancing!’) tread familiar Dua Lipa ground, her ring of album collaborators (including Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Danny L Harle) bring a much-needed touch of grit. On Houdini, easily the stand-out single, analogue synth sounds croak and stutter.

Though it has its sequencing issues, the tight, 11-song tracklisting is refreshing in a current landscape where the likes of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are trotting out albums that race well past the 20-song mark, and could in all honesty benefit from a far harsher edit.

The soaring Falling Forever comes with a distinct whiff of Celine Dion, and its raw, belting delivery is surely Lipa’s strongest vocal performance to date. The dreamy and pulsing Whatcha Doing, laden with cheeky flute-flutters, is another immediate stand-out. It’s odd that neither of these made the cut as singles over the decidedly underwhelming Training Season or Illusion.

Far patchier than Future Nostalgia, too much of Radical Optimism is lacking in the album title’s first adjective; but despite its flatter moments, there’s still plenty to like here.