Review: Dua Lipa's "Future Nostalgia" is a cohesive and catchy second album

by Jack Hargrove | 4/2/20 2:10am

On March 27, English pop artist Dua Lipa released her sophomore album “Future Nostalgia” one week early, in the midst of the global pandemic. With millions around the world quarantined in their homes and looking for a way to pass the hours, the timing couldn’t be better. The album’s upbeat sound is exactly what the world needs in this time of uncertainty and confusion.

Dua Lipa made herself known in 2017 with her debut self-titled album, “Dua Lipa.” This album introduced listeners to Lipa’s low, sultry voice and her dark-pop music. With “Future Nostalgia,” Lipa maintains her aloof and independent persona but significantly changes her sound. In contrast to the modern pop of her debut, “Future Nostalgia” is a sonic collage of ideas from 1970s disco, 1980s synth-pop and the dance-pop of the 1990s and 2000s, all tied together with a thoroughly modern outlook. The album lives up to its name, given its updated take on nostalgic pop sounds. 

The concept of “Future Nostalgia” is surprisingly cohesive and comprehensive for a pop album, with just about every song contributing to the theme in some way. Even the album cover evokes a marriage of past and future, with Lipa driving a vintage car through space, dressed like it’s the 1970s. Despite the album’s ambitions and throwback sound, Lipa never loses her personality, sounding as cool and detached as ever. While the album’s concept as a whole is well fleshed-out, the lyrics are occasionally over-reliant on relationship troubles and other pop cliches, but overall, “Future Nostalgia” is a great pop record that features potential hit after potential hit.

On the album’s first track, “Future Nostalgia,” Lipa lays out her mission statement for the entire album. Over a bouncy disco beat, she says, “You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game/Like modern architecture, John Lautner coming your way.” It’s not often that a popstar name-drops an architect, but Lipa’s reference is apt. Lautner is well-known for his post-World War II Atomic Age house designs, which capture what many in the 1950s thought the future would look like. 

This track also establishes Lipa’s personality and outlook on life. In the chorus, she sings, “No matter what you do, I’m gonna get it without ya/I know you ain’t used to a female alpha.” Lipa establishes immediately that she is not only self-sufficient, but also unafraid to take control of a situation. This kind of insight into her personality is common throughout the album, setting it apart from other pop records. With the first track, Lipa lets listeners know what to expect in the rest of the LP.

Most of the songs on the album reinforce a throwback theme through specific references to classic songs. For example, the fourth track “Physical” recalls Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit song of the same name. Both songs feature the same phrase — “Let’s get physical” — in the chorus. Instead of the disco stylings of Newton-John’s song, however, Lipa’s song favors modern synths. Lipa’s lyrics also have a very current outlook, with lyrics such as “Love the simulation we’re dreaming in” alluding to concepts like the idea of living in a simulation. 

The second track and first single “Don’t Start Now” features a nu-disco sound while referencing classic disco track “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. At the beginning of the second verse, Lipa sings, “Aren’t you the guy who tried to/Hurt me with the word ‘goodbye’?/Though it took some time to survive you,” directly referencing Gaynor’s hit. Again, Lipa provides an updated take on classic lyrical themes. Both tracks describe a woman empowering herself to get over a breakup; however, lyrics from “Don’t Start Now” such as, “I’m all good already/So moved on its scary” use a distinctly modern vernacular.

Perhaps the best song on the album is its third single, “Break My Heart.” Despite sampling the melody from INXS’s 1987 funk-pop song “Need You Tonight,” “Break My Heart” sounds the most like a modern pop song of any track on the album. The more contemporary synth line compliments the classic bassline to create a refreshing take on current pop sensibilities. The song has a quiet-to-loud dynamic, with the track’s powerful bassline interrupted by the building synths of the pre-chorus. In the explosive chorus, Lipa questions the decisions she has made in her relationship, singing, “I would’ve stayed at home/’Cause I was doing better alone/But when you said, ‘hello’/I knew that was the end of it all.” Throughout the track, Lipa showcases a masterful and modern understanding of how to build and release tension in a song.

The eighth track “Love Again” features another direct reference to an older song: the trumpet line from White Town’s 1997 hit “Your Woman.” Lyrically, however, “Love Again” has much less depth than “Your Woman.” The lyrics of “Love Again” are vapid, focusing on the basic idea of starting a new relationship, and the similarities between the two songs seem to end at the shared trumpet line. 

Similarly, the fifth track, “Levitating,” pairs an interesting update of old sounds with subpar lyrics. On “Levitating,” Lipa channels Daft Punk and Blondie for a bouncy, upbeat experience. Both the groovy bassline in the verses and the bright synths in the chorus sound like they could be on Daft Punk’s 2013 disco revival album “Random Access Memories,” and in the bridge, Lipa evokes Blondie singer Debbie Harry’s early experimentation with rapping. “Levitating” describes the emotions caused by starting a new relationship, but not in any new or exciting way; instead, the lyrics sound like a rehash of sentiments expressed in thousands of pop songs before. However, the joy in the music itself is more than enough to make up for lackluster lyrics.

Even though most of the tracks are well-developed, there is one that drags the rest of the album down: the penultimate song, “Good in Bed.” On this track, Lipa sounds like a bad Lily Allen impersonator, with lazily suggestive lyrics. The chorus is annoyingly catchy, featuring incessant repetition and a basic rhyme scheme. The lyrics about staying in a relationship only for sex are very on-the-nose, with lines like, “Yeah, we don’t know how to talk/But damn, we know how to f—” that are utterly uninspired. Sadly, this great album is marred by one bad track.

In the final track, “Boys Will Be Boys,” Lipa tries something different than in every other song on the record. This baroque pop track is the least danceable of any on the album, abandoning synths and bass for a full strings section. The lyrics present a poignant view of modern gender relations told through Lipa’s sardonic style. In the second verse, she sings, “I’m sure if there’s something that I can’t find the words to say/I know there will be a man around to save the day/And that was sarcasm, in case you needed it mansplained/I should’ve stuck to ballet,” providing a scathing view of the treatment of women in society. 

While feminist ideas are toyed with in the preceding tracks, “Boys Will Be Boys” is the only song that can be considered a pro-woman anthem. In the chorus, Lipa plays with the classic phrase “boys will be boys,” singing, “Boys will be, boys will be/Boys will be, boys will be boys/But girls will be women.” This track ends the LP on a serious note, breaking from the central theme of the album to leave the listener with an important message.

Ultimately, Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” provides a refreshing take on the pop music of the last 50 years. Nearly every song fits the album’s concept well, making “Future Nostalgia” one of the most cohesive pop records in a while. Often, pop concept albums are based around half-baked ideas that cannot be sustained for an entire LP. For example, both “Speak Now” by Taylor Swift and “I Am … Sasha Fierce” by Beyonce were  promoted as concept albums, but , neither establishes a cohesive vision in the same way that “Future Nostalgia” does. 

Lipa proves herself on this record as having the vision required to pull off a true concept album. My one gripe with this album is that most of the lyrics are nothing new, since nearly every song is about relationships. However, the sleek, tight production that underlies every track more than makes up for it.