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Charly Bliss-ed Out

In praise of a great young band growing up and getting even better

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The barrette in Eva Hendricks’s unruly mop of blond hair spells out MISERY, in chunky, all-caps rhinestone letters. You catch it in the close-ups of Charly Bliss’s video for “Hard to Believe,” an antic, pop-punk earworm that comes toward the end of the Brooklyn band’s second LP Young Enough. It’s an appropriate piece of follicular jewelry: Charly Bliss’s sophomore record is an exercise in making something bold and sparkling out of personal darkness. “I’m kissing everything that moves, I’m kissing anything that takes me far away from you,” Hendricks sings in her playground-shrieker voice over a grumbling guitar, before qualifying that sentiment a bit: “But I would rather eat than starve, I would rather kiss you hard.” The song is a swirling vortex of centrifugal force, as thrilling and dizzying as a carnival ride. But, as ever, there’s a thin line between adrenaline and nausea: “This is a song about being addicted to a bad relationship,” the band said on Twitter when the video came out, “and the endless cycle of trying and failing to end one.”

That might seem like an unexpectedly heavy sentiment from Charly Bliss—a band that, when confronted two years ago with a list of potential songs to cover for the A.V. Club, went with Len’s immortal ode to Slurpees and summertime, “Steal My Sunshine.” (It ruled.) Charly Bliss sound uncannily like a band that would have made a cameo in the prom scene of any ’90s teen flick: Hendricks’s vocals are sugary enough to induce brain freeze, and guitarist Spencer Fox favors bright, melodic riffs that make you pine for the days before Weezer were a cover band of aging meme lords. But there’s always been a darker undercurrent to Charly Bliss, especially if you were paying attention to Hendricks’s evocative lyrics. “Guard rail, taking the stairs, passed out on the subway with blood in my hair,” she sang through a creepy smile on “Ruby,” a song off their 2017 debut album Guppy that Hendricks wrote in tribute to the therapist who cured her fear of fainting in public. Ridiculously quotable, Guppy was a grunge-pop treasure trove of cartoonish 20-something neuroses: “I’m too sad to be mean—I’m gonna end up working at Dairy Queen!”

It was a deliriously fun record, even if it didn’t always cut too close to the bone. Reflecting on their debut album recently, Hendricks said, “A lot of the time I would get close to saying something that was very revealing but then I would avoid it, or do a fake out, by instead saying something that was a funny or sarcastic version of what I meant. And I think I was making fun of myself a lot and singing as a caricature of myself.”

On Young Enough, Hendricks lets her guard down, while she and her bandmates crank their amps way up. Charly Bliss have been catchy from day one, but on this album they have figured out how to engineer hooks gigantic enough to feel written across the sky. The punchy, synth-driven first single, “Capacity,” is poppier than anything Charly Bliss has done before, but its lyrics are biting and insightful. “I’m at capacity, I’m spilling out of me,” Hendricks sings, her vocals hopscotching along with a candy-coated synth line. She has called “Capacity” “a song about wanting to kill your inner people-pleaser,” but it’s also a shot fired at the normalized exhaustion of late capitalism and the conditioning of “triple-overtime ambition.” “I can barely keep myself afloat when I’m not saving you,” Hendricks sings. By its stirring bridge, “Capacity” has become something deeply needed in our modern moment: a song about breaking up with burnout. Ruby the therapist would be proud.

No longer hiding behind that “caricature of herself,” Hendricks confronts even more intimate demons on the tracks that follow. Young Enough is a candid chronicle of trauma and healing; most of the songs are about her experience extricating herself from an abusive relationship. Hendricks based the single “Chatroom” on an experience of sexual assault, and its music video—a moody, plot-driven clip where Hendricks plays a woman trapped in a violent, misogynistic cult—is by far the darkest thing Charly Bliss have done to date. “I was fazed in the spotlight, his word against mine, everybody knows you’re the second coming,” she sings. The great expressive power of Hendricks’s voice gives the song its barbed happy ending, as she repeats the line “everybody knows you’re the second coming” with a withering verbal eye roll.

Like bassist Dan Shure, Hendricks got into musical theater before she did punk rock (not as rare as it may seem; the first time Kathleen Hanna was ever on stage was when she scored the lead in a local production of Annie at age 9), and there is an endearing hamminess to some of her more exuberant vocals. But this background also gives her the gravitas and melodic sensibility to pull off a few sparse, synth-driven ballads on Young Enough, like the stirring “Fighting in the Dark” or the show-stopping confessional “Hurt Me.” It’s Hendricks’s most affecting vocal performance to date, a direct address to a partner with “eyes like a funeral, mouth like a bruise.” The imagery is ominous and powerful, the song building in intensity as she repeats, “You don’t wanna hurt me / You don’t wanna hurt me, baby.” The way her voice wavers, though, you know it’s already too late.

And yet what’s admirable about Young Enough is that it manages to confront all this emotional pain without being too solemn. They’re still Charly Bliss, buoyant as ever—they still sound like the band that Renée Zellweger fronts at the end of Empire Records. But now, as a bonus, they have the exhilarating vulnerability of that cinematic moment too. Hendricks’s lyrics are too complex to be one-note, though, and within the scope of this record there’s still ample room for joy, humor, and love. “I wanna eat the world with you,” she sings on the propulsive “Under You,” a song that reminds me a little of Liz Phair’s crush-struck Whip-Smart single “Supernova,” so vividly does it conjure the giddy atmosphere of new love. Here and elsewhere on Young Enough, Charly Bliss sound (to borrow one of Hendricks’s phrases) “astronomically huge”—a contagious kind of growth that just might rub off on the listener. “Pop music makes you feel larger than life,” Hendricks said recently, speaking of the emotional impulse behind her band’s more streamlined sound, “and I wanted to use it to make people feel strong in the same way I made myself.”