I always knew Charlie Puth made popular music, I wasn’t convinced he made good popular music
But isn’t that always the way? Someone explodes onto the international musical stage, scores a pretty massive hit (‘See You Again’ was at one point the highest-streamed song OF ALL TIME. ALL TIME.) and become pretty much ubiquitous for the next few years. And Puth did exactly that – his debut album Nine Track Mind was very assuring music for people who were looking for the missing link between Olly Murs and Meghan Trainor. It was saccharine, it was ‘throwback,’ it was certainly very popular…it just wasn’t very good.
I don’t know what happened in the space between Charlie Puth’s first and second album, but to call Voicenotes Puth’s re-birth as a pop star isn’t doing the man justice. It’s not a re-birth, it’s a regeneration. It’s the genesis of Charlie Puth taking the first steps to making some fucking great music.
Voicenotes is full of that too – great music. But, Puth’s switched the whimsy of the 60s for the full on dirty funk of the 80s on an album that gets mirky, emotionally at least, and stands as a testament to what one man can do when wielding the power of pop for good.
The album’s opening track, ‘The Way I Am,’ bursts into life with a ‘Dirty Diana’-esque riff and starts Puth’s sonic experimentation with the two instruments that will be his best friend on this album; the guitar and the synthesiser.
The thing about a guitar and a synthesiser, right, is that they shouldn’t work together. One is the vestige of what many people like to call ‘real’ music, like music can’t be heartbreaking, potent or euphoric if some wally isn’t strumming at a guitar. The synthesiser has been around for a while, but it still manages to sound like the future. It can be capable of conjuring intense heat, so you imagine yourself in the peak of the summer by the sea with your first love. Or, they can do a complete 180 and completely freeze you out – like your dancing at the disco, crying, and no-one is seeming to notice,
If one thing is clear throughout Voicenotes it’s that Charlie Puts is capable of conjuring both ice and fire whenever he feels like it. ‘Attention,’ the initial lead single of the album spends much of the song shutting off both the object of the song and the listener as Puth laments letting his guard down for someone who wasn’t worth it. Then, all of a sudden, that last glorious chorus bursts into life. The sun has come out, it feels like the floor has started moving like a travelator. Puth’s not just over it, he’s ready to party, to dance into the dying sunset with someone new.
The chorus of a pop song is a difficult thing to master, isn’t it? It would seem, like the uninitiated, to just building a house of cards. One thing on top of the other until you end up with something closely resembling what you were hoping to see (or hear – this metaphor has kind of gotten away from us hasn’t it?) until it all comes tumbling back down again. Hard to build in the first place, very difficult to master, that’s the chorus of a truly good pop song.
Puth cut his teeth on his debut album with some questionable chorus writing – the phrase ‘let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on’ will genuinely haunt us to the grave. But do you know what? We’re nothing if not forgiving, and Voicenotes is bursting to the seems with great choruses. ‘Attention,’ ‘Done for Me,’ the brilliant ‘Boy’ and the chilled ‘LA Girls,’ all masterful examples in how to craft a simple yet glorious hook for a song you can’t seem to get out of your head.
“The phrase ‘let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on’ will genuinely haunt us to the grave”
And do you know what? Charlie Puth wrote and produced most of this album himself. Himself! Most people can’t even construct a proper hit without at least 12 credited writers and the sample from at least 2 decade-old hits. Charlie Puth has managed (with a little help, granted) to craft an album that simmers and boils in heat-soaked emotion.
He takes a lot of influences along the way – Michael, Janet, Boyz II Men who actually feature here – but perhaps the greatest influence (even if Charlie didn’t necessarily recognise this at the time) seems to be the absolute master of self-produced, great, funky pop music; George Michael himself. Much like Faith and, to a lesser degree, Listen Against Prejudice, Voicenotes is packed full of stone-cold hit songs that could be a number one for most artists working today, it also manages to feel intimately personal and heartfelt.
Like we said, we knew Charlie Puth made popular music, but now Charlie Puth makes pop music. Proper pop music. Proper good pop music.
Voicenotes represents the first step Charlie Puth takes to becoming a truly great pop star and a great songwriter to boot. It’s a testament to Puth that this album was so much of his vision realised, but it’s also a testament to him that he realised the great heights that can be scaled when you fully embrace the power of pop.
Words by George Griffiths