Tuesday, April 16, 2013

album review: 'true romance' by charli xcx

Today, let's talk about electronica trends in pop music.

I'll admit right of the gate that I'm not entirely up to date with everything coming out of the EDM/dubstep/trance/house scene, mostly because I don't tend to find much of that material all that interesting or engaging. I admit that most of this comes from my personal preferences in music: I like songs to have coherent lyrics, that tell stories and convey a message. I like music that can move me on both literary and musical levels, which is why I find songwriters like Nick Cave and Jim Steinman and Arjen Lucassen so compelling. These guys explore deep, complex themes in their music, and they support that music with intricately constructed lyrics that are poetic and have a lot to say.

EDM (short for electronic dance music), on the other hand, tends to operate on a different level, often without lyrics entirely. It runs more on feel and emotion and flow to evoke its  image, and thus I find it difficult to parse out what this sort of music is trying to say. What I have managed to discover is that a large quantity of this music (not all of it, settle down) tends to be about losing oneself in the dance experience and little more.

And so when we look at the pop charts now, I can't say that I like the trend of EDM creeping into pop all that much. Now, there are exceptions where this can work excellently (the immediate example is Swedish House Mafia's 'Don't You Worry Child', featuring John Martin), but one of the unfortunate remnants of the club boom is the presence of house/EDM DJs becoming power players in pop music. And it really doesn't help matters when the two leading collaborators in this genre, David Guetta and Calvin Harris, are really goddamn boring and seem to sap the individuality and personality from anyone they work with. 

Part of this problem comes, I theorize, from three things: tonal dissonance, lyric simplification, and a lack of restraint on the part of the DJ. The first factor comes into play when you realize that most EDM is written for dancing - and not all pop music is intended for this. I remember hearing so many attempted remixes of Gotye's 'Somebody That I Used To Know' last year, the DJ trying to turn it into a dance track - which completely shatters the atmosphere that Gotye and Kimbra were trying to create. The problem gets worse when you have artists actually trying to write their lyrics to the EDM beats, which can lead to a stripping away of nuance and pacing. This happened twice with David Guetta last year in 'Turn Me On' (featuring Nicki Minaj) and 'Titanium' (featuring Sia) - in both cases, the lyrics feel token and trite compared to the instrumentation, which unfortunately happens to be boring as all fuck. But the worst case of all comes when the DJ's production completely overpowers the singer and renders his/her presence superfluous on the track. Calvin Harris is the most egregious offender here, somehow managing to overpower Florence Welch (lead singer of Florence & The Machine and one of the most powerful vocalists of the past couple of years) on 'Sweet Nothing'.

Most of these problems can be linked to a lack of restraint and modulation (the usage of both soft and loud sounds in the mix). You'd think that EDM DJs, who have more access to the track layering than most, would have better control of these factors, but when you also consider that they tend to remix music for the club, you can understand why the modulation gets stripped away. But either way, it tends to mean that a lot of the little factors that can make EDM/house music actually interesting fall away when it comes onto the pop charts. 

However, that's not to say that EDM trends can be interesting and engaging when done correctly, or that dance synthpop can't be just as good as other music - the careers of Kylie Minogue and Robyn are a testament to that. So when I'm confronted with the debut album of Charli XCX, an English synthpop artist, I was immediately intrigued (although significantly cautious when I read this album has been in the works for the past three years and was shelved for an entire year). Is Charli XCX the next big EDM pop princess, coming to drive Nicki Minaj back to rap where she belongs?

Well, no. Charli XCX is not the next big EDM pop princess, even despite her presence on EDM synthpop hits like 'I Love It' by Icona Pop. No, Charli XCX is something of a different artist entirely, and I'll admit to being caught completely off-guard when I first listened to her album True Romance, mostly because it's nothing like what I was expecting.

You see, Charli XCX's primary influence isn't EDM at all - it's darkwave. I've talked a bit about darkwave before in my review of Delta Machine, Depeche Mode's newest album, but I think I need to expand a bit on this particular musical styling before I talk about this album properly (trust me, the long EDM rant above will come back into this, I promise). 

You see, I'd like to think that I'm rather predisposed to liking darkwave - I like gothic music and style, I've been listening to symphonic/gothic metal for almost a decade and bleak prog for the past five years, and I like sexually charged electronica and synthpop, particularly when it matches the emotional intensity with the music. There are a lot of things about darkwave synthpop, at least on a surface level, that should engage the hell out of me.

Yet the more darkwave I listen to, the more I find that outside very specific situations, I like it a hell of a lot less than I want to. Sure, there are acts that occasionally nail that moment of brilliance, that perfect balance, but too often, I'm discovering that most of this music turns into bland, melodramatic sludge, unable to move or engage me. It's what happened when I went through Depeche Mode's discography, and I couldn't help but feel that some of the problem was that the band was more concerned with the image and the artifice rather than the message. And that's okay, to some extent, but it's the same problem I have with EDM trends slipping onto the pop charts: when executed improperly, the songs turn out tedious, and when there's nothing beneath the surface, why should I care? And ultimately, that tends to be where I come down on the darkwave genre: when it works, it's fucking phenomenal, but nailing the precise balance between artifice and emotion and sound and message is so difficult that very few acts get it right, and it becomes disastrous when they get it wrong.

So when Charli XCX decides to embrace a darkwave aesthetic (which, I should also add, hasn't really aged well since its heyday in the mid-to-late-90s), I was more than a little skeptical that she'd be able to make something work. But here's where she decided to do something that is rather interesting: she included modern elements of production and stylistic flourishes from R&B and EDM. So does it work?

Well, not quite, and it's really this blend of styles that makes True Romance such a fascinating mess of an album. It's not quite bad, let me stress that, but it's far from good and I completely understand her label's rationale for shelving the album for the past year (although I'd be remiss to mention the fact that it does better fit the pop music scene right now than that of 2012).

For starters, let's talk about the instrumentation, where I'd argue this album does the most right. Most of the production is pretty solid and interesting, and while the album really doesn't feel very 'big', I get that a smaller focus is part of the point. The fusion of modern production with darkwave unsurprisingly works rather well, and while nothing quite reaches the heights that Depeche Mode had with Delta Machine, there's nothing incredibly offensive on here either. In fact, the worst spots of instrumentation are often when a few of the modern R&B elements that come into play, with grating sound repetition and some arrhythmic sections that don't sound nearly as good as they could. Interesting ideas, to be sure, but frustratingly inconsistent execution.

Funnily enough, that's also how I'd tend to describe Charli XCX's vocals, because for the most part, they're okay. Sure, she owes a lot to M.I.A. in her breathy delivery and pacing, but she has enough richness in her voice to convincingly deliver on a few of the tracks, the highlights for me being 'Black Roses', 'Nuclear Seasons', and 'Stay Away'. Furthermore, her voice fits a darkwave melody very well - a smooth alto that's capable of nailing the sultriness and poise that makes her compelling, and if she had stuck with that delivery, I probably would be rating this album a fair bit higher.

The problem is that Charli XCX tried to incorporate the same sort of sing-talk rap that Ke$ha occasionally uses - except unlike Ke$ha, there's not an ounce of levity in any of the songs and not an ounce of personality in Charli XCX's delivery. Ke$ha at least had energy and personality and the benefit of half-parody with her material, but Charli XCX is playing it straight and it backfires big time. At best, she's a low-rent M.I.A., spaced out with the occasional bit of cleverness. At worst, she alternates between being tedious and insufferable, unable to maintain a consistent flow and cadence that belies her inexperience. The absolute low point is 'Cloud Aura' featuring Brooke Candy, who somehow comes off worse than Charli XCX with even worse rapping loaded with stupid pop culture references - if you're referencing Chris Brown, and Chris Brown is actually a better rapper than you, seek a different career!

It really doesn't help matters that the lyrics are absolutely nothing to write home about here. Charli XCX claims that this album is an exploration of all of her various romantic entanglements, but outside of 'Nuclear Seasons' (the opening song that explores a relationship in a modern, faux-post-apocalyptic world) and 'Black Roses' (which plays with some interesting symbolism), there isn't much here worth writing home about. Now as I've said above, with EDM you can occasionally overlook sparse lyrics and instead try to experience the mood and feel and texture of the song - but the problem here doesn't just come from the lyrics.

No, the problems here come from Charli XCX, in that when she actually has a personality on these tracks, for the most part it's completely unbearable. Her delivery and lyrics paint the picture of someone completely obsessed with her own story and very willing to tell it, but in the end, that story isn't compelling, interesting, or all that tolerable. If I might make the Ke$ha comparison again, Ke$ha was frequently accused of being superficial and vapid on her first album - but on her better tracks, you got the feeling she was in on the joke (Animal wasn't perfect, and the bad tracks on that album are when the vapidity crossed into plain obnoxiousness, which is a lot more irritating and a lot more difficult to look past). But Charli XCX is playing everything so seriously that I find her vapid, self-obsessed, half-intoxicated delivery a lot more grating, more because there's so little behind it.

And the final blow I'll have to drop is that for all of Charli XCX's attempts to make a modernized darkwave album, it's a strangely unsexy album, which really bugs me. Most of darkwave was defined by sensuality filtered through the goth aesthetic - but here, whatever gothic sexual overtones that are left are muted and hazy, a factor driven by Charli XCX's lack of personality and the way that the EDM elements seem to leech the more intimate features from the tracks. This all contributes to what one might consider the biggest problem of Charli XCX's True Romance: it feels very immature, even amateurish. It feels like an album written by a vapid teenage girl who likes the goth look, but still enjoys dancing to shitty house music too much to embrace the attitude behind it.

In the end, Charli XCX's True Romance is utterly, painfully mediocre, and yet another entry in the list of forgettable darkwave acts. As I said, it's not offensively bad, but there are enough mistakes and shallowness on this album that makes it a real chore to listen through. Skip it.

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