“Pop” ceased to be a dirty word sometime in the early to mid-2000s. It became kitsch-cool to enjoy diapraghm-rumbling bass bumps, commanding female vocals, and earworm choruses that you once fought to disassociate yourself from. Loving Britney and Christina became almost grime-chic, as though seeing their lives unfurl was something of note. But that’s the thing about pop stars’ ultraviolet belters: they stick with you, whether you want them there or not.
Another funny thing happened about three years ago. A Canadian girl named Claire Boucher, known professionally as Grimes, made it not only palatable but, well, desirable for young girls with strange bangs and access to a synthesizer to make bouncy electro-pop for the head-shaking masses. Since then, the synthesizer generation has been reborn, gathering the ashes of Kraftwerk and blowing them into the wind, along with the debris of stray glittered eyelashes from last night’s rave.
Enter London’s Charlotte Aitchison, known by her moniker Charli XCX, and penchant for provocative goth-pop. Five years in the making, Charli XCX has evolved from the neon-drenched girl pouncing around warehouse parties, gushing about dinosaur sex, to a rising pop star. Aitchison’s glitzed-out pop earworms take stock of girlish romance and heartbreak with her full-length debut on Asylum, aptly dubbed True Romance.
You don’t even have to watch an interview or live clip to know how Aitchison performs: prowling across the recording studio, bedroom, and stage with the prowess of a frontwoman entirely self-aware. For such a young vocalist, she’s harnessed the “know your audience” mantra to blackened heart at the age of 20, and her clipped British accent transitions well into musky vocals. She’s rarely seen without onyx lipstick and a slitted look in your eyes that says, “Got you.”
Still, Aitchison’s long-awaited debut album sadly leaves something more to be desired. Single “You (Ha Ha Ha)” may be the cheeriest contempt song ever penned, with giggles and half-raps over the oft-used Gold Panda single “You”. “Set Me Free” throbs with a formulaic synth bop, and could be heard premiering over the loudspeakers at Urban Outfitters, while “Black Roses” revs up to no avail. In particular, “Take My Hand” crackles with the remnants of the insomnia after an amphetamine high from a night out: “Let’s get real high / And never come down”.
Aitchison possesses an impressive vocal range, which can distort from a growl to a whimper in the same track. “Set Me Free” features Aitchison at her finest, with her falsetto describing her imprisonment to a certain other before devolving into a spoken-word bridge. “Stay Away” slows down the Adderall-driven pace down pleasantly to a sultry, snare-driven number with ample harmonizations that showcase Aitchison’s vocals.
Although Aitchison’s vocals in particular have potential, her Charli XCX project needs to harness a complete and dominating control over them, like her heroes Spice Girls and Gaga. Tracks like “Grins” fail at complementing recycled synth loops with bland lyrics, the two jarring the listener in a grating way that offsets her potent voice. Similarly, there’s no need for autotune — “Cloud Aura” features the welcome addition of Brooke Candy rapping, which is quickly brought down by an autotuned Aitchison.
Lyrically, True Romance nitpicks at a failed relationship. It doesn’t examine the intricacies of ugly love that made it so electric, but rather takes on the stance of, “I am now a better person because of you, don’t know why you (and I) were interested in the first place, but get the hell away from me.” Much of the album is fortified with self-empowerment, but again is hindered by the lackluster instrumentals. “How Can I” is without a doubt the most honest track on the album, with the simple chorus of “How can I fix / what I fucked up.” Music is resonant when it strikes an emotional chord, and regret is one of the easiest and truest ways to fulfill this requirement. The half-hypnagogic instrumental swirls of “So Far Away”, with whisper-rap-sings in your headphones, denouncing “Bad boy / motherfucker / destroy.” We all have those instances, sure. Unfortunately, dull synth loops don’t speak as loudly to an ex as a giant “fuck you” does.
She’s not there yet, but between her bubbly, stark approach to saccharine pop songs, it remains to be seen whether she’s got the chops to hit the mainstream. For now, True Romance is a valiant attempt that doesn’t do much more than provide the soundtrack for “getting ready to go out” songs on tinny laptop speakers. It’s the sound of trying on new outfits, throwing them on the floor, and putting on what you were originally wearing, except you add on an extra coat of eyeliner. Once the perfume is sprayed and the Instagram photos are taken, though, it’s time to shut the laptop and writhe to Madonna and Cyndi Lauper at the club. It’s just how it is.
Essential Tracks: “Set Me Free”, “How Can I”