With her proclivity toward leopard print and a love for sugary goth-pop, as featured on Icona Pop’s now-gold single “I Love It,” Charli XCX, nee Charlotte Aitchison, might as well be a mid-’90s mall rat. But to turn her out as a simulacrum of Gwen Stefani’s “Hella Good” years would be doing her a great injustice. At just 20 years old, the Hertfordshire, U.K., native has churned out a series of electro-pop songs that have only improved over the past few years.
So many of the tracks featured on Charli XCX’s debut full-length, True Romance, have been previously released that it feels more like a singles collection than a proper album with a build-up to a predetermined release date. But such is life in pop. A full five tracks here have been released as singles—from her 2011 breakout “Nuclear Seasons,” “You (Ha Ha Ha),” “What I Like,” “Stay Away,” “You’re The One” (one of CMJ’s top tracks of 2012)—totaling nearly 40 percent of the album. But these are all easy high points, seamlessly executed songs, from the maddening trance and haunted-house echoes of “You (Ha Ha Ha)” through the wistful all-out energy release of “Nuclear Seasons.”
True Romance, which at moments is chaotic enough to be compared to the Tarantino version of True Romance, has its tongue firmly in cheek: Romance, while it may have a smooth, shiny and well-produced facade, is volatile and, as Aitchison stutters on “How Can I,” “fucked up.” The theme of love and romance as something to be challenged and endured runs its course through the album, giving the record a youthful but knowing bent.
Aitchison retains writing credit on all of True Romance‘s songs, but as with all pop music, she’s got a laundry list of wonder-working producers. First, enter Ariel Rechtshaid—yeah, the guy from your favorite third-wave ’90s ska band, the Hippos—who produced both “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Seasons.” He’s also produced Charli XCX contemporary Sky Ferreira’s sleek “Lost In My Bedroom” and sensually dreamy “Everything Is Embarrassing,” as well as tracks from Usher, Vampire Weekend, No Doubt, Theophilus London and Blood Orange. “What I Like”‘s echoing reverb goes to Boston DJ J£zus Million, and Ghostly International’s Gold Panda is responsible for the psychedelic loops in “You (Ha Ha Ha),” which is devoured from his bass-ed up “You.” And Patrik Berger, who has famously worked with Charli XCX predecessor Robyn, went to work on “You’re The One.”
The light “Black Roses,” a track with a simple fun pop bounce, and “Take My Hand,” another thumping Rechtshaid dance floor jam on which Charli XCX fights sleep to fly through the dark night, are easy shoe-ins for the record’s next single. They are few and far between, but True Romance still has low points: The repetitive nature of “So Far Away” only leads to a search for the skip button, and the awkward “Cloud Aura” features Brooke Candy, the alterna-stripper/rapper who made her first widespread public appearance in the video for Grimes’ “Genesis,” which circulated the Web a few months back. Candy’s out-of-place vocals, when paired with the heavily processed R&B tones and Charli’s sultry drawl, make her sound like she might as well be attempting to spit the rap interlude of a botched “No Scrubs.”
But no matter how diverse the credits—certainly no skimping here—there is cohesion in the series of singles. Charli XCX isn’t smashing any glass ceilings in pop; she’s perfectly roughing up the edges of a long-standing mold.