On ‘Charlie,’ Charlie Puth Abandons Perfectionism For Vulnerable Relatability

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In 2019, Charlie Puth couldn’t wait to get his heart broken for the first time. At 30 years old, Puth is the pop poster boy for late bloomers, and he described himself that way to Hunter Harris and Vulture back then — yearning for the kind of teenage puppy love he watched in Clueless and worrying that his love songs came across as formulaic. In January 2020, that insecurity caused him to scrap his followup to his acclaimed 2018 sophomore album Voicenotes. He provided an update 18 months later, revealing the pressure he’d felt to pump out the next radio-friendly hit while operating from a relatively empty internal well. Charlie, his long-awaited third solo album out today (October 7), leaves that problem firmly in the past.

This is Puth at his most vulnerable, down to a teary-eyed TikTok admission about how traumatizing “That’s Hilarious,” the album opener, was for him. That unabashed transparency is the backbone of Charlie — rooted in authentic pain, brave exploration, and subsequent self-discovery. The album was produced entirely by Puth and assembled on TikTok, to extinguish his self-doubt by receiving real-time feedback from his fans that he’d missed during the pandemic.

Puth hadn’t needed to draw from experience to churn out platinum-certified pop earworms like the ubiquitous “See You Again” with Wiz Khalifa, “Marvin Gaye” featuring Meghan Trainor, “Attention,” “One Call Away,” or “We Don’t Talk Anymore” featuring Selena Gomez. With Charlie, recorded in the aftermath of a draining breakup — be careful what you wish for? — he balances his reputable music theory expertise, pristine pitch, and innovative production with his newfound introspection.

It began with “Light Switch,” the gold-certified catchy lead single with nearly 300 million Spotify streams and 15 weeks on the Hot 100 to its name. Born by accident on TikTok, Puth had an epiphany after recording himself flipping a light switch. The melodic, uninhibited album closer, “No More Drama” was similarly hinged on a creaking door. The Jung Kook-assisted bop “Left And Right” cleverly pans from one headphone (or AirPod, probably) to the other in the chorus. Each track seamlessly segues into the next sonically, but the duality in the ordering is more intriguing — mirroring the emotional whiplash of falling in and out of love. The lasting revelation, though, is the cohesive lyrical arc Puth paints. The broken man in “That’s Hilarious” is stronger for it in “No More Drama.”

In “That’s Hilarious,” Puth laments that his ex “took away a year of my f*ckin’ life” in the pre-chorus before the chorus reveals his scars, underscored by synthesized laughter: “You didn’t love when you had me / But now you need me so badly / You can’t be serious / That’s hilarious.” The next track, “Charlie Be Quiet,” hits on Puth’s pension to keep his messy (and potentially risky) feelings to himself.

Early album standouts “Light Switch” and “There’s A First Time For Everything” capture the hypnotizing and intoxicating nature of developing a crush. Puth’s buoyancy is immediately deflated with the synth-based “Smells Like Me,” which simultaneously sounds like it’s plucked from an ’80s rom-com and delivers a bitter yet earnest message — “I hope your jacket smells like me” — that could be found in any Instagram caption.

“Left And Right” indulges all-consuming infatuation. “Loser” is soaked in self-loathing and blame for someone leaving, followed by the gut-punch piano ballad “When You’re Sad I’m Sad,” where Puth can’t help but empathize and take her back when he knows he shouldn’t. By the time we arrive at “I Don’t Think That I Like Her,” punctuated by Travis Barker on the drums, and “No More Drama,” Puth has the clarity to choose himself.

“I’ve got no more drama in my life, and it’s been amazing,” he sings in “No More Drama,” utilizing his signature high register. “I’m so glad I finally realize I’m better without you / It took a year before I recognized / That our love already died / Baby, I was down bad, I was down bad / Now I’m healing.”

It was a hard-earned realization, one he credits his fans for guiding him toward. “This album was born on the internet, and I’ve had so much fun making it in front of all of you this past year,” Puth wrote on Instagram when confirming Charlie‘s release date. “2019 me used to think that in order to be an artist, you had to hide away and talk to nobody to make your art. Turns out you make MUCH better art when you involve millions of people in the process. (For me at least.) I hope you scream cry every word when I sing these songs on tour because they wouldn’t be here without you.”

As with any piece of art, the subject matter doesn’t matter as much as the perspective. Charlie is a breakup album, a staple in music since forever. But the unique TikTok crafting of Charlie normalized crowdsourced healing. The typical artist trope is to relinquish ownership of an album to their fans upon release, but Puth welcomed joint custody of Charlie from the beginning — out of therapeutic necessity rather than vanity. He’s thrilled to finally have a full body of work that not only he can stand behind but that people want to claim. (He summarized his career-long frustration to Entertainment Weekly by saying he wished he “had a time machine” to make Charlie his debut offering.)

Since “See You Again,” Puth has tried so hard, by his own admission, to package himself as the perfectly consumable pop star. He was born with the skill to make chart-topping bangers in his sleep, and he did, but the sleepwalking ends with Charlie.

“I can’t think of a melody that makes you come back to me,” Puth poignantly sings in the thumping, bass-laced track “Tears On My Piano.” It feels like a reckoning that music can’t solve everything. The missing ingredient couldn’t be manufactured or serendipitously found by flipping a light switch. Puth just needed to live more life, experience heartbreak, and throw perfectionism to the wind (literally). As a result, he became what he, and his truest fans, always wanted him to be: a more complete human being and relatable pop star.

Charlie is out now via Atlantic. Stream it here.

Charlie Puth is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.