Charli XCX exemplifies a new generation of pop star struggling to parlay critical lauding into a mainstream appeal. The club also includes Sweden’s Tove Lo — beloved by tastemakers and her limited fan-base, otherwise entirely obscure — and, for now, Norwegian newcomer Sigrid.
But Cambridge-born Charli XCX has been at the front line far longer, having signed her first record deal in 2010 at age 18. She has, ever since, enjoyed almost entirely positive press while failing to meaningfully dent the charts.
Earlier this year, the artist, real name Charlotte Emma Aitchison, had an apparent epiphany when, without any promotion from her label, she put her first, semi-official mix-tape, Number 1 Angel. This was, in reality a highly experimental mini-LP, which saw her cut loose and embrace more experimental inclinations.
Unburdened by the need to appeal to anyone but herself, the release was a revelation — woozy and unconventional yet illuminated by her strengths as a pop writer. Nine months later, she repeated the trick with her second smash’n’grab foray — a playful, at times willfully weird plunge into the dark side of r’n’b and pop.
An immediate stand-out is ‘Backseat’, her phantasmagorically barking hook-up with Carly Rae Jepsen (whose ‘Call Me Maybe’ remains the outstanding novelty smash of the past ten years). Elsewhere she ropes in Caroline Polachek of Chairlift and the aforementioned Tove Lo on the baroque and playful ‘Out Of My Head’, where the principal doesn’t arrive until the second verse.
There are some glorious surprises also. Charli swerves into grime on I ‘Got It’ and throws in a tear-jerker ballad on ‘Lucky’. For an ostensible throwaway, this is, moreover, a strikingly coherent collection— suggesting Charli XCX’s future lies beyond the mainstream, chasing her eclectic instincts without a care as to whether anyone is listening or cash tills are chiming.
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