A curious mix of moody electro and irritating speak-rap
There’s no nice way to say this: Charli XCX makes goth-pop for Tumblr nuts. Thing is, it seems to be working for her. Charlotte Aitchison had a dodgy start to her career in 2008, hawking tracks called ‘Art Bitch’ and ‘!Franchesckaar!’, but a couple of years ago she re-emerged with great eye make-up and a more sophisticated sound. Since then she’s released a series of moody electro tunes (‘Stay Away’, ‘Nuclear Seasons’) that the blogs keep saying are actually pretty good.
Recently, Charli’s reassured her core fanbase (the Tumblr nuts) by telling one interviewer: “50 per cent of my life is taken up by making gifs”. But in the other 12 hours of the day she’s managed to record debut album ‘True Romance’ with hip producers such as Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Sky Ferreira) and Patrik Berger (Robyn). Mixtapes and buzz tracks are trendy right now, but this is Charli’s chance to prove she’s a proper pop star, not just a blog idol.
The album begins strongly with ‘Nuclear Seasons’, basically Gwen Stefani gone darkwave, and the crafty ‘You (Ha Ha Ha)’, which plonks a catchy pop kiss-off over a Gold Panda sample. Then comes the disco thrill of ‘Take My Hand’: imagine Grimes covering a dead-eyed ’90s club banger by someone like N-Trance. Fourth track ‘Stay Away’ sounds a bit like Martika’s ’80s earworm ‘Toy Soldiers’, so Charli gets bonus points for ripping off stuff no-one else does.
But just as you’re typing “how to make gifs” into Google, the quality drops. The songs become samey and Charli won’t stop talking – literally. Obviously talky bits in pop songs can be amazing – think Taylor Swift’s “this is exhausting” on ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ – but Charli shoves some kind of speak-rap into almost every track. She’s said in the past that she’s “fascinated by pop music being picture-perfect on the outside and warped and fucked up underneath”, and that’s an intriguing proposition. Trouble is it’s hard work digging beneath the surface when Charli keeps reminding you of All Saints’ ‘Never Ever’ intro or the middle eight from Atomic Kitten’s ‘Whole Again’. Weaker tracks like ‘So Far Away’ and ‘Grins’ end up sounding like old girlband tunes (though not the ones you remember) tarted up with trendy Grimes/The Knife-style production.
Of course, Charli XCX isn’t “warped” or “fucked up” really: she’s a talented 20-year-old from Hertfordshire who swears a bit and writes songs about bad boys. “Now I’m-a fuck your shit up“, she tells one on ‘Cloud Aura’, sounding like she could do something scary – maybe write the C-word in eyeliner on his MacBook screen? At the moment, her music is best consumed in blog-sized chunks, not as a stodgy 48-minute album. Tucked away at the end of ‘True Romance’, it’s easy to overlook the Madonna-meets-Siouxsie swoon of ‘Lock You Up’. But if you heard this tune by itself on SoundCloud, you might think it was actually pretty good.