Charli XCX: ‘True Romance’ (Album Review)
Charli XCX is one of the few Internet-born, blog-approved acts worthy of the hype.
The buzz began long ago, way back—back to the glory days when MySpace was still (mostly) a thing, and artists like Lily Allen were leading the charge of the self-made, DIY pop star.
At the time, she was billed as a precocious London-bred club kid putting out glitchy, lo-fi electro tunes like “Emelline,” “I Wanna Be Darth Vader” and “Art Bitch” at no more than 16 years old. The tracks were hugely promising—especially for such a young artist—and made their way into the ears of tastemakers and artsy scenesters by the end of 2008. (In fact, while I was interning at Interview in the summer of ’09, I remember the editors curating an an upcoming feature on London’s up-and-coming ladies of Brit-pop, including La Roux, Little Boots and…Charli XCX.)
But the pieces only truly started to come together in 2010, when Charli entered the studio with one of the most exciting producers happening right now, Ariel Rechtshaid. (See also: Sky Ferreira‘s “Everything is Embarrassing” and Usher‘s “Climax.”) Together, the two began refining what we know today as the Charli XCX sound across a series of singles and mixtapes, including Heartbreaks and Earthquakes and Super Ultra: Dooming beats, dreamy New Wave pop melodies, warbling vocoders and blood-soaked lyricism.
Charli’s sound and style is a vibrant, eclectic collage of cultural commodification—a product of growing up in This Digital Age: The Spice Girls. Britney Spears. Gwen Stefani. Siouxsie Sioux. Cocteau Twins. Marilyn Manson. She’s heavily influenced by grunge, goth and ’90’s bubblegum pop culture. Lisa Frank. Furbies. Glitter. Her videos are infused with a distinctly dull VHS graininess. In concert, she stands sky-high on black Buffalo boots, crop tops and bright plaid and animal print patterned pants—she is, essentially, a living, breathing Tumblr-pop princess.
As soon as “Nuclear Seasons”—originally released at the end of 2011—comes swooping into the speakers with a giant whoosh (following a dreamy new intro), we’re plunged into Charli’s digital paradise, full of ’80’s synth-pop hooks and menacing beats, never bowing once to Top 40 trends or obvious oddness for the sake of being strange: “When you go, please don’t leave your love in the sun/My heart would melt away,” she moans.
“You (Ha Ha Ha),” produced by Joakim Åhlund blends the delirious synthesizers from Gold Panda‘s “You” with a major chuckle of a hook—quite literally (“Ha-ha-ha!“), while the Patrik Berger co-crafted single “You’re The One” (with whom she collaborated to craft Icona Pop‘s now omnipresent “I Love It”) blends romantic nothings (“You’re the one that’s been stealing stars/Your golden arrow went throw my heart”) with a punishing series of industrial synthesizers ripping into the speakers.
But in spite of the gritty textures, there’s plenty of jubilee: “Take My Hand,” one of the album’s most buoyant offerings, is a blissful pump-up anthem: “Come on baby, put your hands on my hands/Come, just lay your lips on my lips,” Charli girlishly commands. The chorus could be lifted straight from a Carly Rae Jepsen record—if Carly was suddenly severely depressed. The song’s gorgeously crafted comedown briefly takes the track into ethereal heights, before crashing down to one of album’s darkest low:s “Stay Away.”
Originally released back in 2011, “Stay Away” is the point at which Charli XCX seemed to uniformly click across the blogosphere—a frigid moment of pained yelps and hammering, lurching beats—armed with a melody that cuts quite deep: “Do you remember what I said that first time we met? Stay away,” she warns, her voice pleading through the pounding drums. The pain is palpable.
In an album full of jet black gems, the slow-soldiering “Set Me Free” shines brightest—or, darkest, as an anthem for the bruised, broken and battered. The lyrics throughout True Romance are grim, but here, they’re especially morbid: “I have been dancing with shadows, I have been calling your name/I feel the skin dripping from my bones/Your touch, it makes me insane,” she begs. Between the Stefani-esque pre-chorus yelp (“I’m falling down/Doooown to my knees!“) and the post-chorus chant (“You can feel my pain…”), the song’s desperation leaves its mark long before the beats fade out.
“Black Roses,” too, is a solid smash—and perhaps one of the album’s most major pop moments. Blending the warbling dramatics of Marina + The Diamonds, the synth-rock sound of Ladyhawke and a distinct New Wave edge that could easily be tucked in between A-ha and A Flock of Seagulls, Charli bounces across fuzzy beats and echoing coos. “I’m fallen victim to black roses,” she sings across the tricky tug-of-war of seduction and sorrow.
As she’s described the record, it’s quite vulnerable—especially “So Far Away,” which feels like an open diary (or, in keeping with the theme, LiveJournal): “Before the moment we met, we were chatting on the Internet/Getting kind of crazy through the posts that we were looking at/I was pretty confident you were pretty into that,” she murmurs on the sullen break-up track, which sounds like a VHS being wound in reverse. There’s plenty of half-rapping happening here (and throughout the album), but unlike, say, Ke$ha‘s irritating flow, Charli manages to keep it chill.
“How Can I,” one of the two tracks featured on her very first mixtape (Heartbreaks and Earthquakes) also feel like one of her earliest records: Slow creeping vocals, moans in the distance and hazy ambient sound. “How can I fix what I fucked up?” she laments on repeat.
She keeps up the Internet fixation on “Cloud Aura,” a dreamy, hip-hop-infused foray with web oddity Brooke Candy, which plays a lot like Australian electronica producer Pogo‘s wonderfully trippy Disney re-fixes. As the two trade off brokenhearted bars, they catch their men doing them dirty and downloading naughty pictures in their inbox: “You left me here in the dark,” she cries out in between the bitter rapped verses.
The album comes to a glittering close with “Lock You Up,” a major standout—and the other ’80’s classic that never was, conveniently unearthed and processed through Charli’s demented goth-pop processer. Think Violator-era Depeche Mode, as sung by a cheerful pop princess. In space. Or something like that. “I love you, not nothing else/I want to lock you up inside my heart,” she confesses. “What do I do to lock you up inside my heart?”
For a while, there was some doubt about how True Romance would sound: The singles were solid, but the mixtapes lacked polish. (Then again, that is the point of a mixtape, really.) And after all of the setbacks and delays, the idea of it coming out at all was becoming an increasingly distant dream.
But the day’s finally arrived, and as it turns out, the Tumblr-pop vibe works even better as an album: It’s incredibly cohesive, perfectly sequenced and entirely engaging 13 tracks deep—something most accomplished pop superstars with several albums under their belt still can’t quite seem to get right.
Even more impressively, True Romance sees the 20-year-old goth-pop princess carving out a sound for herself that is undeniably unique: There’s no mistaking those hammering beats, floating ambient sounds and overly processed, weird vocals. Yes, there’s shades of her contemporaries at play—including her sisters in dark pop divinity, Grimes and Sky Ferreira—but a Charli XCX song simply sounds like a Charli XCX song. She is a product of the post-TRL, post-CD shop age of pop—a digital superstar, and yet, she’s still managed to cull genuine emotion from the cold confines of cyberspace.
And that—apart from crafting a solid set of brooding electro-pop tunes—is the album’s true triumph.
True Romance was released on April 16. (iTunes)