On Dua Lipa’s ‘Radical Optimism,’ Romance Is Everything

Romance is a blast on Dua Lipa’s third album, “Radical Optimism.” It’s a thumping, reverberating, woofer-rattling, arena-scale sensation, something to exult in even when it doesn’t always go right.

On Lipa’s first two albums, she juxtaposed flirtations and breakups with thoughts about power and gender. “I know you ain’t used to a female alpha,” she sang in the title track of “Future Nostalgia” in 2020, and she denounced male entitlement in “Boys Will Be Boys.” But on “Radical Optimism,” all that’s at stake is coupledom: sizing up each other, testing the possibilities, envisioning permanence or — surprisingly graciously — letting go. Her new songs treat single life as an adventure game full of ups and downs, but not as cataclysmic or tragic.

Lipa, 28, has never bothered with subtlety. She aims for — and usually achieves — full-fledged bangers. There’s always an underlying confidence in her firm alto voice, and she has a gift for big, blunt, instantly legible pop hooks, the kind that sum up a situation in a terse chorus. “I’m not here for long/Catch me or I go Houdini,” she demands in “Houdini,” one of the album’s prerelease singles, creating an open-voweled, singable shorthand for making her escape.

With “Future Nostalgia,” Lipa was an early mover in what grew into a pandemic-era disco revival. That album and others (from Jessie Ware, Doja Cat, Kylie Minogue, Roisin Murphy and Lady Gaga) would summon a communal clubland experience that had been shut down in 2020 and was sorely missed.

Four-on-the-floor beats and snappy funk bass lines continue to drive Lipa’s tracks on “Radical Optimism,” which opens with “End of an Era,” a song about a club meet-up that might just be the right one. “Is this my happy ending?” Lipa wonders amid cooing backup vocals, and she goes on to rap, “Another girl falls in love/Another girl leaves the club.”

Lipa’s collaborators on “Radical Optimism” include Danny L Harle — who has easily moved from the self-conscious hyperpop of PC Music to making glossy, up-to-the-minute mainstream pop — and Kevin Parker, who creates era-melding grooves as Tame Impala. The productions reach back to the larger-than-life sounds of the 1980s, when hitmakers like Madonna and Michael Jackson commanded a pop monoculture with superhuman performances: singing, dancing, acting in videos, forever poised and strategic.

Lipa shares that level of ambition. She has made it her business to be at once technical and physical, choreographed and carnal. Even in a much more fragmented pop landscape, her songs are built for a mass audience. The tracks on “Radical Optimism” are lavishly maximalist. They mingle sleek programmed sounds and luxurious live ones; bass, percussion and acoustic guitars bring a human touch, even as they’re surrounded by sci-fi synthesizers and metronomic beats.

It’s an album of nonstop ear candy. “Training Season,” her demand for a partner who already knows “how to love me right,” has tickling guitar syncopations and girl-group harmonies popping out of nowhere. “French Exit,” in which Lipa decides to disappear instead of going through a laborious breakup — “Goodbye doesn’t hurt if I don’t say it” — laces a sputtering beat with playful, elusive instrumental cameos: finger cymbals, flute, handclaps, string-section swoops.

“Falling Forever” harks back to disco-era dramas like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” but flips the tone to positive thinking. It summons thundering drums as Lipa savors a blissful connection, belting “How long can it just keep getting better?”

And “Happy for You” is a post-breakup song that radiates absolution for all involved. The singer sees her ex with a new girlfriend — “I think she’s a model” — and instead of jealousy or regret, she’s overjoyed that everything worked out. “Even the hard parts were all for the best,” she decides, and her voice leaps up — above double-time drums, swirling backup vocals and cavernous bass tones — as she realizes, “I must have loved you more than I ever knew,” at once self-congratulatory and unburdened.

There’s immense discipline and effort behind the songs on “Radical Optimism,” and Lipa flaunts her work in the studio and in her effortful onstage dance routines. But she also brings a determined lightheartedness to her new songs, somehow managing not to take them too seriously. Romance can be all-encompassing and all-important in the moment. But if it doesn’t work out, she knows she can move on.

Dua Lipa
“Radical Optimism”
(Warner Records)

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