Could it be that debut albums are becoming even more of a litmus test for the increasingly countless artists who manage to get written about somewhere within the wide expanses of the internets? If so, it would especially apply to those fortunate few whose song gets picked up for a day — a week, if they’re really lucky — by some blog, zine, or other. You know what kind of song I’m talking about — the type that actually meets the hard-to-believe-it’s-still-possible expectations of a real pop(ular) song in defiance of an — arguably — unequaled oversaturation in the history of pop music. And once you find it difficult to shake off, chances are you’ll try to find it as a free download or on Bandcamp or on SoundCloud — pretty much anywhere. But will there ever be an entire album of songs as good as that track? Such may be the state for artists navigating in or around the music industry these days.
Needless to say, the ridiculously young English singer-songwriter that calls herself Charli XCX is far from the only artist one could find in this situation. Her first “mixtape” introduced her as a genuinely quirky mix, consisting of a consciously mall demographic/club trash pop songstress that sported an odd post-post-Hot Topic, confused goth/rivethead getup, who had somehow/nevertheless/supposedly/cleverly managed to sound as if she’d been exposed to enough “cutting edge” or “interesting” music to infuse her own with — and that is to say nothing of her initial sophisticated pomo taste for Geocities/Windows 95-era graphics with which to package her music. As a matter of fact, that mixtape, last year’s Heartbreaks and Earthquakes, was, and remains, a genuinely inspired, eclectic, and most of all positively peculiar collection of songs, which were then unexpectedly matched by the more refined production of Super Ultra only a few months later. It shouldn’t come as any shock that one should find quite a few tracks carried over from those first two indelible mixtapes to Charli XCX’s first foray into the full-length, True Romance.
By virtue of its length only, True Romance is a wholly different animal than (or approach from) Charli XCX’s last two releases. It’s overwhelming from the very start, feeling like it’ll be a drawn-out affair, but it quickly proves to have an unrelenting, fast-moving, and fleeting quality, possibly due in part to the fluid continuity of the songs. Because of this, the album manages to evoke an artificial, violent euphoria that complements its vastness. Last year’s “Nuclear Seasons,” one of Charli’s first proper singles (she’d had other, somewhat different material out years earlier), opens the album. But such is the nature and logic of True Romance that the track is now outfitted (ornamented) with a just-under-a-minute-long intro wherein Charli seems to do her very best to capture what the rapture might sound like, with lines sung about burning cars, falling through clouds, and crying out repeatedly “I want this forever.” It’s so good in fact that one would doubt a whole song being able to carry such affect throughout, yet as the sixth track proper, it’s a quite respectable effort. “You” is the follow-up, a relatively unremarkable, straight pop song that still pushes things along, especially after the self-sustaining “Nuclear Seasons.”
But it’s “Take My Hand” that gives a real taste of what this girl’s been up to since the last mixtape came out: it’s the most unashamedly girl-pop-influenced song she’s yet recorded. And it’s where a predictably characteristic dual production/composition factor overwhelmingly trumps any lyrical imagination: “Just take my hand/ You take my hand/ You take my hand/ Let’s dance!/ Won’t you please just take my hand!?” But who really cares anymore? Those of you who haven’t yet really need to get over it. Besides, Charli does at times achieve a sort of slight brilliance and profundity in the vague simplicity of her lyrics: “Why you gotta go to sleep/ Don’t go to sleep/ Don’t go to sleep/ Let’s go out/ Get blown away/ Lost in the dark/ Yeah real high/ And never come down,” which serves its music well, if not accordingly. But while “Hand” showcases a Charli XCX unafraid to channel a defiant relish for girlish gimmickry, later tracks like the aforementioned “Grins” and “So Far Away” give her a chance to explore the projection of a more grown-up self, with still interesting results. In effect, the mall/teen/girl takes juxtapose well with the post-indie/pop dichotomy ones, both complementing and in fact informing one another in a curious concoction.
Indeed, throughout True Romance, Charli XCX is playing out a range of roles, spanning from the young teenage mall-goer, to the young adult flirting with her sexuality, to the more self-aware, self-confident, and creative performer that she’s become. Yet she really only touches upon these roles, much like the songs themselves: we’re only given a transient impression — overflowing to the brim with sounds and ideas as it is — and before we know it, it’s gone. But it doesn’t matter: there isn’t a moment when Charli XCX doesn’t display the kind of wild, brash confidence that other artists take years to arrive at.