Music Reviews
True Romance

Charli XCX True Romance

(Asylum) Buy it from Insound Rating - 9/10

There’s a new generation reaching adulthood, and it’s a generation who have had the internet as a constant in their adolescent years. While those of us who have racked up a quarter century (or more) of years on this planet can easily recall an era pre-information superhighway, this new generation can’t imagine a world without Google or Wikipedia. For them, making friends online has always been perfectly normal, they’re comfortable sharing the minutiae of their personal life on social networking sites (anyone with a Facebook friend born in the 1990s can attest to this) and their attitude to music seems totally alien to anyone who can remember the dark, pre-millennium days of paying upwards of £15 for a CD. On one hand, it’s worldview that doesn’t seem to value physical artifacts and pays little respect to copyright, expecting music to be as good as free without considering the wider implications. On the other hand, the sheer abundance of music available means this is a generation with a rich and varied taste, with enviable access to practically all recorded popular music of the past fifty years, and for whom the concept of obscurity means little. There are teenagers out there with a music collection that the most committed of crate-digging musos could only have dreamed of at that age.

One corollary of this is that musical artists growing up in such a climate have a healthy disregard for notions of genre, and will happily meld together styles and samples that would have humourless purists reaching for the smelling salts. The poster-child for this movement (which tends to be given teeth-clenchingly awful names, such as ‘post-internet’ or ‘Tumblrwave’) is critical darling Grimes, but Kitty (formerly Kitty Pryde), Kreayshawn and reality TV star turned experimental outsider art practitioner turned aspiring pornographic actress Farrah Abraham can all be labelled similarly.

Which brings us to Charli XCX. Born Charlotte Aitchison in 1992, she’s been making her intoxicating brand of dark, woozy, electro-gothpop since 2008, when she released the singles Emeline / Art Bitch and the magnificently-titled ¡Franchesckaar!, which set her on the path to True Romance, her debut album. As well as these singles, 2012 saw the release of two mixtapes from Charli XCX, Heartbreaks And Earthquakes and Super Ultra, and True Romance builds on the invention and wit displayed in her previous work and fulfills that initial promise.

Unsurprisingly, her sound is rich and varied. Inspired by dark, ethereal 80s synth-pop it may be, but there are elements of R&B, drum n’ bass and house throughout True Romance. What’s more striking, however, is the similarities it shares with the cloud rap sound of A$AP Rocky and Clams Casino – its slightly stoned, codeine-laced fug bringing something both disorienting and thrilling to the party.

After a snippet of Grins, a track that features in full halfway through the record, True Romance beings with former single, Nuclear Seasons – the best track Ladyhawke never wrote. It makes you wonder why Charli XCX isn’t all over commercial radio; it’s a catchy, well-constructed pop song that manages to pack a lot in without conforming to the Guetta/Harris dance-pop template, instead injecting an effortless, swaggering cool.

This trick is repeated on several occasions throughout True Romance. Another previous single, You (Ha Ha Ha), mixes in slices of Eastern mysticism and, like all the best pop music, manages to be slightly weird whilst still remaining accessible. The afore-hinted at Grins sprints on hi-hats and beats before succumbing to full-on rave, and the snarky and brash Cloud Aura, featuring rapper Brooke Candy, pairs stuttering beats and a killer riff on a tale of post-relationship revenge.

Lyrically, Charli XCX doesn’t try to be anything but a twenty-year-old woman. Her words are peppered with slang, profanities and modern phrases, yet it all adds to the persona of the record. On many of True Romance’s thirteen tracks she’s assured and confident, which make the songs where she displays her vulnerability and fallibility all the more affecting. For every “This shit is super wild / This shit is super cool / This shit is kinda gangsta / I think I’m into you” (from current single What I Like), there’s an “I climbed a wall / To touch your shadow / I hear you call for me” (Stay Away). In fact, all but one of the songs are about relationships, whether fleeting or serious, with the exception being the hedonistic Take My Hand, which it’s safe to assume is about Class A stimulants of some form (“I swallowed something stupid / It’s making me stay awake”).

Charli XCX’s vocal style is also something rather noteworthy. Whilst her singing voice may not be especially stunning – think a less irritating Marina Diamandis – she’s prone to a hybrid of rapping and talking, all delivered in a clipped, English accent. This serves to make her sound like the rebellious younger sister of Sarah Cracknell or Sarah Nixey, and there’s something erotically charged about her insouciance, especially when Stay Away hints at non-vanilla sexual predilections (“On my hands, on my knees / Pulled on the chains / Licking up the blood / Yeah, I made this decision”).

On True Romance, Charli XCX manages that rarest of things – a straight-up pop record that’s inventive and rewards repeated listening. She displays a keen ear and manages to be both innovative and relevant. Stand-out track, So Far Away, is perhaps the Charli XCX aesthetic in a microcosm – a brooding, engaging track replete with attention-grabbing electronic accoutrements that packs in references to blogs and social networking while hinting at the human aspect behind such online interactions.

Minor quibbles aside (Set Me Free is a little over-wrought and clichéd), True Romance is a simply stunning record. The Charli XCX persona might be so trendy and hyper-modern that it makes you want to run for the hills and listen to Midlake for all eternity, but to do so would be to miss out on what could well be the pop album of the year. She’s proved that radio-friendly pop doesn’t equal formulaic, that you can talk about being young without sounding immature, and that there’s gravitas to a world that can seem to outsiders little more than animated GIFs and pictures of kittens. Make no mistake, this is now, and thanks to the stellar True Romance, Charli XCX is our soundtrack.