Charli XCX's debut album suffers from recycled previously released material, but it's her strong presence and magnificent pop sensibility that save it.
After almost three years, Charli XCX has finally graced us with the much promised and much anticipated major label debut. The Brit Goth-pop princess who brought us the explosively infectious and wonderful “Nuclear Seasons” has donned enough material to warrant an entire full-length album as opposed to the many singular EP-like releases she’s been teasing us with over the past two years. The first impression of True Romance is that it’s disappointing. But before you begin to crucify me at the stake, hear me out. The album begins with Ms. XCX putting her best foot forward -- “Nuclear Seasons” (now with a brand new prologue reprised from the Heartbreaks and Earthquakes mixtape) opens the record, followed by the frenetic “You (Ha Ha Ha)”. This is probably her biggest mistake on True Romance. How do you follow the brilliance of a track that you are most famous for and that has been playing to the public ear for more than a year? You don’t, that’s how. “Seasons” would have been better spent if the album worked its way to it, making it the surprise stellar track at a pinnacle moment in the tracklisting. On True Romance it serves as a jumping off point from which the rest of the album is a downhill fall. However, the rest of the album isn’t bad (quite the contrary), it’s just not as brilliant as “Seasons”.
Now put that aside. Forget that the superior “Seasons” begins this record and allow yourself to be enveloped by the rest of True Romance. Your disappointment will wane and you’ll come to realize that it’s actually a deftly made dark-pop record that justifies its place next to some of the best pop records of the past few years, even though it only truly consists of less than a handful of new previously unreleased material. The triad super-pack “You (Ha Ha Ha)”, “Take My Hand” and “Stay Away” blend together seamlessly, picking up as best as possible from their predecessor. “Set Me Free” is a fairly bland pseudo-power-ballad that will grow on you over time, but leave you underwhelmed upon the first few listens. It samples an incredibly familiar-sounding synth line, but because we’re not given credits when previewing albums (and because it’s un-Shazam-able) I can’t place it, and it’s driving me crazy.
If you downloaded XCX’s two previous mixtapes Heartbreaks and Earthquakes and Super Ultra Mixtape then this is where you’ll be hit with a retread of recycled material. It begins with “Grins” and “So Far Away” from Heartbreaks, throws in “Cloud Aura” (the only track from Super Ultra), then gives you two new tracks before ripping into the year-old “You’re the One” ending with two more tracks (“How Can I” and “Lock You Up”) from Heartbreaks. All in all, there are only four songs on this 13-track album that haven’t seen the light of day in some previous format. The good thing is that Heartbreaks is a better mixtape than Ultra and where the former’s tracks were whittled down and blended together for effect, they appear in their full uncut format on here. The problem with this retread of previously released material is that it makes everything sound disjointed. Because you know these songs in a different form placed between different tracks with snippets from '90s teen films, their place here will take some time getting used to. If you’re not familiar with her two previous mixtapes then I’m sure the record will mesh much more cleanly. The most apparent sore thumb is “You’re the One” that sticks out like crazy right after the magnificent new track “Black Roses” and the equally great “How Can I”. It just doesn’t fit, with it’s jarring beat and tempo change, despite it still being a pretty good track overall.
Mismatching and poor sequencing decisions aside, how does Charli XCX’s debut full-length release shape up? Well, if you can get behind old tunes in a new wrapping, then you’ll most likely be grooving along with this uber-talented UK-bred dark pop princess when she sings “You, you lied / HA HA HA HA / I was right / All alone / good job, good job / You fucked it up” on “You (Ha Ha Ha)” or will be taking her up when she sings “Why you gotta go to sleep / Don’t go to sleep, don’t go to sleep / Let’s go out!” Littered throughout the record are some choice choruses and striking lyrics, none more so than Brooke Candy’s rap during the intro of “Cloud Aura” where she sings “Handed you my heart then you took a shit on it / That’s fucked up."
All in all, True Romance, much like this review of it, is confusing at times and will most definitely require multiple listens. The good thing being that the record is so multi-layered that multiple listens will only pull you into her aural soundscape. The album could have done with some editing and resequencing to make for a killer debut album. Perhaps now that she has a solid true start (of which this record provides), she’ll no longer need to rush through giving you snippets here and there to keep your attention, making her full-length releases a more relished experience of brand new material all around? One thing is for sure, the infusion of new tracks “Take My Hand”, “Black Roses”, “Set Me Free” and “What I Like” just proves that Charli XCX is a pop performer to be reckoned with -- holding her own in a sea of hollow offerings. She’s the fun pop you don’t have to be embarrassed about listening to, and she’s definitely worth focusing your attention. True Romance is certainly the true beginning of an illustrious career.