The British singer Charli XCX emerged from the internet ether about a year and a half ago, around the same time most of us noticed Grimes, and she seemed cut from the same cloth. In her videos, she looked like a futuristic platform-booted goth-rave cyborg — a sort of living mall-pop signifier and a living comment on mall-pop signifers at the same damn time. But she’s been steadily cranking out singles ever since then, and now that she’s finally gotten around to putting together her debut album True Romance (an album half-made up of all those internet singles), it’s finally evident that she’s really just a pop singer, in the time-honored sense, with a goofily anime-indebted sci-fi fashion sense. On True Romance, she sneers and cusses like 2006 Lily Allen, and throws gum-snap tough talk over next-level club music like 2008 Santogold, and breathily floats over breezy keyboards like 2012 Solange. She sings songs about how she’s really into you, boy, or about how you fucked up when you walked out on her, like all three of those girls and a million other girls and boys. And True Romance succeeds because they’re almost all really good songs. The album doesn’t break molds; it shows how life-affirmingly great those molds can be.
Charli is 20, which means she’s the exact right age that the music she grew up on, the pop music that hung in the air in London when she was a child, is the music that sounded like mercilessly exciting robo-pop when the critics of my generation were starting our writing careers: Missy Elliott, the Sugababes, Girls Aloud, So Solid Crew, Destiny’s Child, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”-era Kylie Minogue, even early M.I.A. She’s fully internalized all the spaceship whirrs and vengeful-droid lockstep-beeps of those artists; their blood is in her songs. But she doesn’t seem to see anything brash or confrontational in her use of these sounds; they’re just the soundtrack to her falling in and out of love, to her learning how to talk shit. She makes that music sound casual, and I’d never quite considered the possibility that it could sound casual. For someone of my generation, it’s pretty exciting to hear a kid like her treating those sounds, which once expanded my whole worldview, like they’re no big deal.
Of course, that sense of this music being casual is an intricately constructed illusion. Her choruses are so immediate and winning and professional that she and her co-writers must’ve workshopped them half to death. But she’s got that pop singer’s gift for selling those painstakingly manicured hooks like they’re hastily scribbled notes being passed in the back of a lecture hall. I didn’t realize how often Charli cusses until I tried listening to True Romance in a car with my kids. (When I did realize it, I didn’t turn it off; these songs are too great for driving through sunshine, and I was willing to risk my son learning how to say “fuck” before he learns how to walk as long as I could keep it on.) The same way the future-pop of the past is a simple heartbeat for the album, those cuss words aren’t spat out like transgressive little verbal knives. Instead, they blur right into the song, flowing naturally — just another example of what would’ve once sounded like pop-music boundary-pushing coming across as something completely organic. Charli seems to skip right across ideas and words and genre boundaries because she’s never known a world where those things get in the way. That’s inspiring.
Of course, that means things get awkward sometimes, too. Charli’s sometimes half-raps things, which is simultaneously charming and clumsy as all hell, and someone probably should’ve pointed out that she shouldn’t be doing that. (Or maybe not; when would-be professional Brooke Candy shows up to spit a verse on “Cloud Aura,” things get way worse.) But that sense that rules don’t exist also means we get a miracle of a song like “You (Ha Ha Ha).” The track is built from Gold Panda’s stuttering bass-music instrumental “You.” That’s a pretty great track in its own right, one that could’ve been a mind-blowing cloud-rap instrumental but which doesn’t exactly make an intuitive bed for a pop song. But Charli turns it into a warm, vulnerable song about loss and resentment, about being pissed at an ex for letting a potential good thing go to shit. And by the third or fourth time hearing it, you forget all about the audaciousness of using a Gold Panda track for a song like this. You forget about Gold Panda altogether. It simply becomes an amazing pop song, one of many here.
True Romance is out now on IAMSOUND.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ bright and hard Mosquito.
• The Flaming Lips’ dark and paranoid The Terror.
• Major Lazer’s lovably goofy party-starter Free The Universe.
• Thee Oh Sees’ old-school psych-rock freakout Floating Coffin.
• Iron And Wine’s loose and jazzy Ghost On Ghost.
• Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge’s blaxploitation rap-superhero concept album Twelve Reasons To Die.
• Ghost B.C.’s theatrically absurdist shock-metal opus Infestissumam.
• The Thermals’ stridently bouncy Born To Kill.
• Futurebirds’ wistfully classic-rocking Baba Yaga.
• Born Ruffians’ professionally jittery Birthmarks.
• Odonis Odonis’s squalling, rickety post-hardcore debut Better.
• Houses’ slow and elegiac A Quiet Darkness.
• Barn Owl’s sinister instrumental droner V.
• VHÖL’s sludgy, blackened self-titled debut.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s sharp Patterns EP.
• The Nick Drake tribute compilation Way To Blue.
• SAFE’s self-titled Greedhead EP.