Dua Lipa Radical Optimism Review: Finding Joy in the Details

Despite their short runtimes, many of the songs on the album still manage to pack a punch.

Dua Lipa, Radical Optimism
Photo: Tyrone Lebon

At the root of “radical behaviorism,” a concept popularized by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1970s, is the belief that all behavior is the result of external conditioning and can thus be controlled. Think Pavlov’s dog. The title of Dua Lipa’s third studio album, Radical Optimism, nods to Skinner’s concept, but the British pop singer’s conviction that finding joy amid the chaos of life is simply a choice is more akin to that of a self-help book or the principles of Burning Man, which emphasize an empowering sense of self-reliance and expression.

“I know the mind is quick to throw away the moment,” Lipa pronounces on “Falling Forever,” a rollicking barnburner about keeping the lovelights aflame. She dispenses similar nuggets of wisdom and affirmations—often directed at herself—throughout Radical Optimism, acknowledging her control issues on “Whatcha Doing” while at the same time finding a bit of grace for former lovers (and their new lovers) on “Happy for You” and “Maria” (“I’m better, too, from the ones that I’ve lost,” she admits on the latter).

Boundaries and standards are important to a healthy relationship, Dr. Lipa advises on “French Exit” and “Training Season,” respectively. “It’s time I take my rose-colored glasses off,” she declares on “Illusion” in an apparent rebuke of her own optimism. A better title for the album, then, might have been Radical Self-Confidence. To wit, Lipa dares a suitor to try to tame her on the propulsive “Houdini,” which, at just over three minutes, is about as fleeting as her patience.

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The rest of Radical Optimism is just as nimble, filled with bright, buoyant live instrumentation and psychedelic synth-work courtesy of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and A. G. Cook cohort Danny L Harle, among others. Pairing stinging lyrics like “If these walls could talk, they’d say you know you’re fucked” with tropical rhythms and bubbly synths, “These Walls” is the most serenely devastating break-up song in recent memory.

The album’s neo-psychedelia is a departure from the more R&B and funk-inspired disco-pop of 2020’s Future Nostalgia (though “Illusion” would fit snugly on that album, while the vocal-driven closing track, “Happy for You,” is a throwback to Lipa’s self-titled debut and even makes a lyrical reference to one of its singles). Psychedelic rock, however, is known for long, sometimes meandering and improvisational arrangements, which doesn’t exactly vibe with contemporary music consumption, reliant as it is on short pop songs designed for repeated streams and playlisting. In that sense, Radical Optimism is less radical than it could have been.

Despite their short runtimes, though, many of these songs still pack an undeniable punch, thanks in large part to Parker and Harle’s meticulous production. Tracks like the sublime disco opener “End of an Era” and the Latin-flavored “Maria” brim with cascading keyboard runs, gauzy backing vocals, and literal bells and whistles. Lipa’s views on life and love might be broad enough for a pop song, but the joy is in the little details.

Score: 
 Label: Warner  Release Date: May 3, 2024  Buy: Amazon

Sal Cinquemani

Sal Cinquemani is the co-founder and co-editor of Slant Magazine. His writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Billboard, The Village Voice, and others. He is also an award-winning screenwriter/director and festival programmer.

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