Charlie Puth - Voicenotes (Review)


It became quite rare hearing an album like Voicenotes, something that would have been called a completely normal pop record some time ago, whose sole purpose is being radio friendly and entertaining. Between the 70s throwback of Adele and Harry Styles, the experimental and ambitious art pop of Beyoncé and Rihanna, the trap swagger of Post Malone and Taylor Swift, and the stomping house pop of Katy Perry and Flo Rida, I almost forgot how pop used to sound like some years ago. Voicenotes could have as well been made in the 90s or early 2000s, performed by NSYNC. Records like these show me that time indeed has passed since I was a child, and while I’m still fairly young, popular mainstream music has changed quite a lot since I first got into it.

The songs on Voicenotes draw from a very full sounding and often funky pop production that’s more inspired from contemporary RnB rather than trap, and uses drum kits and aesthetic choices that haven’t been present in mainstream pop for 15 years, although their influence is still there, hidden under layers of fast paced hi-hats and 808s. It feels as if for Charlie Puth the time has stopped around a time when "Millennium” was among the ten most used words in everyday dialogue. From the snaps used in the classic love ballad If You Leave Me Now to the mix of electric guitar and hip-hop drums in the catchy The Way I Am, and whether it’s the acoustic guitars of Change or the hot oriental touch of L.A. Girls, Voicenotes would have already made teenage hearts swoon in times when internet’s influence was inferior to MTV’s. I mean, Slow It Down, with its soft dance beat and prominent use of the phaser effect on the background vocals could be an outtake off Cher’s Living Proof. I mean damn, he uses them as if it was the newest coolest thing to do. The harmonies, singing styles and even the mastering all perfectly copy a subgenre that once was on top not such a long time ago - will Puth’s mainstream success bring it back? I wouldn’t complain.

It goes without saying that a perfect imitation doesn’t make a perfect record. I am admittedly easily overwhelmed by early 2000s flashbacks. It’s these aesthetics I grew up with, and it’s what I learned was fresh and cool. Somehow this thinking is still in me, despite being very happy with the current evolution of pop, which is varied and offers a great range of ambitions including both traditional songwriting and surreal electro adventures. Out of my memory, a nostalgic and romanticized image of the 2000s emerges when albums like Voicenotes drop. The same happened at the movies with Suicide Squad, which was essentially an early 2000s pop culture overkill. The difference may be that the DC movie actually delivered a mainstream pleasure that’s similarly irresistible as the original experience, while Voicenotes is merely an inviting appetizer for a forthcoming listening marathon of 15 to 20 year old pop music - I already grabbed my copies of Justin Timberlake’s Justified, Sugababes’ Three, Cher’s Believe and Celine Dion's A New Day Has Come. In 10 to 20 years, will I look back at Voicenotes with such an excitement? I doubt so. I’ll probably rather put in my Lemonade or Beerbongs & Bentleys CDs (I know what you are going to say, but CDs still do better than downloads or streaming over here, and judging by the recent vinyl craze, maybe we’ll have a CD craze in the 2030s, who knows?).

Don’t get me wrong: in no way is Charlie Puth’s music bad or boring, but compared to both the other releases of this year and the pop albums it resembles, it’s just not that outstanding. Take for example Kim Wilde’s brilliant Here Come the Aliens. It not only sounds absolutely authentically like an album from the peak of the ‘80s new wave era, each of the 12 songs would have also been an absolute highlight back in the days. Voicenotes has all the sounds, all the feelings and all the performances to entertain in the same ways as the originals for as long as it lasts, but what happens when it’s over? Are you tempted to press replay or are you in the mood to bring your old records back to use? Unfortunately, the album contains no earworms (spare The Way I Am), no moments of earth shattering emotion and nothing that makes it absolutely unique among the mass. It's sole appeal is reminding you of the past without gaining much personality of its own. What it does however is delivering a wide selection of sounds and trends of the past decades, which prevents it from losing its appeal a few tracks in. You wait what may come next, and Puth surprises you with another style you almost forgot about and portrays it with a freshness that’s remarkable. In conclusion, it’s a very fun ride that has it all, but it’s not a creative peak, neither today nor 18 years ago.