- 16 Mar 22
Cult pop star sets controls for heart of the mainstream
It’s a question as old as TikTok. Is Charli XCX a superstar in waiting? Or an underground phenomenon elevated by happenstance to the cusp of the mainstream?
That conundrum cuts to the heart of XCX’s music, and at moments, it is uncertain if the artist born Charlotte Emma Aitchison is herself all that clear as to which version of Charli XCX she wishes to share with the world. Because, as fans will know, Charli records tend to come in two varieties. There’s the unapologetic mainstream gallop of Charli and hits such as ‘Gone’ and ‘1999’. And there’s the glittering experimental wonkiness of Pop 2 and her sublime 2020 lockdown LP, How I’m Feeling Now.
With her fifth official studio album, the sense is that Aitchison is trying to have it both ways – this, with the massive caveat that the review is based on the five-track sampler provided to journalists. It opens with the woozy tumult of ‘Lightning’, a heartfelt onslaught that, if diabolically catchy, is also in the delightful tradition of “alternative” Charli.
Elsewhere, however, the pop pedal is pressed all the way to the floor, with ‘Baby’ beginning with a clatter of strings, building towards a sort of elevated generic funk. “I can see it in your eyes,” she says. “If you’re feeling scared it’s fine/ I’ve got no problem taking full control.”
It’s fine but it does trim the eclectic edges off. The same can be said of power ballad ‘Every Rule’, which chronicles a forbidden love affair in a fashion that demands a place on prime-time playlists.
How I’m Feeling Now was a dark arrow aimed at her cult fanbase. With Crash she’s shooting, with a bang and a wallop, for the higher echelons of the charts. And, if incapable of writing a song that doesn’t grip stardust, the real lesson is that - great though “Mainstream” Charli is - “Underground” Charli is better yet.