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Dua Lipa’s ‘Radical Optimism’ Is a Joyous Blast of Pop Savvy: Album Review

In the promotional blitz running up to her third album, “Radical Optimism,” Dua Lipa continuously waxed intellectual about self-realization and the freedom that comes from growth, spurred by situations both good and bad. “I think it’s important that we just learn to walk through the fire and not hide away from it,” she told Variety in March. “That’s just optimism. It’s probably the most daring thing we can do. Sometimes.”

It’s an ethos she applies to the album at large. “Optimism” is a blast of pop savvy, imbued with romantic tales of reckless abandon and the trappings and benefits that come with it. But the heady explanations she soldered onto the album in interviews weren’t really necessary; the maturity of “Optimism” speaks for itself, mainly in the production, performance and songwriting, which see Lipa at her most realized. If her last album, “Future Nostalgia,” was about escapism, then “Optimism” is about confronting the realities that make us who we are, and the often harsh truths that come from it.

Her latest arrives four years after “Nostalgia,” an exercise in disco opulence that landed at just the right time. It was a parachute from the gloom of the pandemic, and much like Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica,” released just two months later, it offered reprieve and comfort in its ebullience, a distraction from the horrors of the world and a reminder that dance music’s remove lived on.

She hasn’t lost sight of what makes dance-pop so compelling on “Optimism,” and only builds on it. Lipa corralled a team of musicians — Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Tobias Jesso Jr., Danny L. Harle — to confect a world unto its own, from the thrust of “These Walls” to the French touch of “Illusion.” It’s at once satiating and electrifying. Lipa isn’t a ballad artist, or one to infuse her music with the beliefs she shares outside of it. In her newsletter Service95, for instance, she runs a book club, and shares stories of social justice and activism.

But “Optimism” isn’t about any of those things, or how she described the album. It’s a direct pop record dressed up and perfected in the way that the best pop music does, gussying up the structures and conventions of the genre while ignoring everything outside of it. Lipa has extensively talked about growth, and here it shines particularly in her vocals. The ragged edges and deft pliability of her tenor carry deeper weight on “Optimism.” On “Falling Forever,” which speeds with a concerted gallop, she sings with an open throat as the chorus explodes: “How long, how long, can it just get it keeping better / Can we keep falling forever?”


Lipa previously explained that she began recording “Optimism” while on her “Nostalgia” tour, and the shimmer of the latter album carries over. But it feels distinctly new to Lipa, folding in Spanish guitars on “Maria” and tropical ecstasy on opener “End of an Era.” Much has been bandied about how she’s on an endless summer vacation, with Instagram posts that document her seemingly perpetual travels. But here, she uses it to her advantage. “Optimism” is a global album rooted firmly in pop tradition. When she sings of ditching a suitor without saying farewell on “French Exit,” it somehow feels like a more sophisticated version of an Irish goodbye. The confidence and conviction she exudes sells it, and it’s why Lipa has become one of mainstream music’s most convincing voices.

To that, in an era where artists are as valuable as the success of their singles, it’s a wonder that Lipa’s very traditional rollout yielded less comparable returns than that of “Nostalgia.” “Houdini,” the project’s leading track, is as inoffensive as it is hooky, yet it somehow felt far less significant than “Dance the Night,” her Oscar-nominated contribution to “Barbie the Album.” Fans online have attributed much of the album’s faults thus far to her team, who leaked the lyrics to the entirety of the record months ahead of time by putting images of the vinyl sleeve on social media. Some have criticized the media choices she made; others have noted the impersonality of her TikTok posts.

In context, though, singles like “Training Season” and “Illusion” bolster the ephemeral, feel-good nature of “Optimism.” To become a main pop girl in such a relatively short amount of time demands perfection at every turn, an impossible task. Lipa’s music, in a vacuum, attempts to approximate that. She’s confessional and honest, and reveals much about her personal affectations across the album. Lipa often struggles with commitment, like on the sapiosexual anthem “Anything for Love” where she sings, “I’m not interested in a heart that doesn’t beat for me / I want a mind that meets me equally.” On “These Walls,” perhaps the album’s most arresting song, she bemoans the growing distance from a lover with a knowing nod: “They tell us go and face your fears / It’s getting worse the longer that we stay together / We call it love but hate it here / Do we really mean it when we said forever?”

It’s when she attributes a greater significance to “Optimism” that it muddles what it actually is: a pop album in the barest, most accessible sense. “Optimism” comes amid a flurry of major releases from Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande. Each of those records was subsumed in its respective world, and Lipa slots neatly next to them with a vision of her own. But make no mistake, there’s no grand gesture. “Optimism” is pummeling, concerted and arranged exactly how it should be, a pop record meant to wash over you like a breeze rolling off of the surf.

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