Taking the stage at the March For Our Lives student protest in Los Angeles, Charlie Puth performed his song “Change.” With a bluesy keyboard accompaniment, he sang lyrics that seemed to speak directly to the students: “What a waste it would be if we hurt for nothing?”
Charlie Puth’s career has been nothing short of meteoric. In less than two years, the 26-year-old singer (he’s straight), who has become something of a heartthrob à la Shawn Mendes, has dominated with hits such as “See You Again,” “One Call Away,” “We Don’t Talk Anymore” and “Attention.” On his second album “Voicenotes,” Puth is beginning to show real depth. Jazz, folk and R&B are key influences of the new music, which features collaborations with Boyz II Men and James Taylor. As with his previous work, Puth demonstrates his astounding vocal range and delivers a fresh showcase of ready-made hits.
Sexier and funkier than his 2016 “Nine Track Mind,” the new album shows more musical maturity. With producer and writer credits on every track, in addition to many instrumental credits, he takes ownership over his music in a way that is surprising for a singer of his age.
The album’s lead single “Attention,” released more than a year ago, has been a mainstay (perhaps an overplayed one) of pop radio for the past year, and the music video has attained 750 million views on Youtube. This success has allowed Puth to move from opening for Shawn Mendes to headlining his own tour.
The album opens with “The Way I Am,” featuring a fast funk groove oddly reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” Puth centers the song, as well as much of the album, on the bass line. It sets a danceable, somewhat funky tone for the rest of the album.
Following the massive success of lead single “Attention,” singles “How Long” and “Done For Me” have been released. “How Long” opens much like other songs that have aspired to be summer hits — “Cake by the Ocean” comes to mind. “Done for Me” treats similar material but is framed as sensual duet with singer Kehlani.
Jealousy, relationships, breakups, and “LA Girls” are the recurring themes. If one were to reproach “Voicenotes” for any one thing, it would be for the repetitive lovesick content and the tendency toward juvenile lyrics. This is not to say the strategy is without some merit — Puth has been hugely successful with a younger demographic. But while he has made considerable progress developing the music, he still has some lyrical maturing to do.
“BOY” is perhaps the best representative of the often strange mix of musical maturity and lyrical adolescence. Beginning with syncopated synth chords, the song quickly transitions into an up-tempo groove, broken up in the middle by a jazz keyboard solo. It would be a stretch for most pop albums but Puth incorporates it effortlessly. At the same time, the lyrics self-consciously nod to Puth’s young age: “You won’t wake up beside me/’Cause I was born in the ’90s.” (Puth probably doesn’t help his own cause by singing a large part of the song in a cherub-like falsetto.)
The most surprising part of the new album is the two collaborations — clearly a means of pushing Puth outside his comfort zone, allowing him to explore new territory.
In “If You Leave Me Now” with Boyz II Men, Puth appears eager to show off his collaborative skills, his soaring falsetto blending into a thick R&B harmony. The song “Change,” featuring James Taylor, has a refreshingly beautiful melody and gives the listener a needed break from snappy bass lines and synth hooks.
Puth has gone a long way in creating an album that showcases his musical abilities. His talent is unmistakable.