Allie X, née Alexandra Hughes, is a puppet. A plaything. Something to be manipulated. At least that’s what she suggests on “Simon Says,” a standout cut from her debut album, CollXtion II, the follow-up to last year’s promising CollXtion I EP. The Canadian singer-songwriter’s preoccupation with the bleaker side of romantic relationships is apparent throughout the album, from lead single “Paper Love,” which explores the ephemeral nature of love, to the bluntly titled closing ballad “True Love Is Violent.” But she takes things to the level of Lana Del Rey on the hypnotic “Simon Says,” succumbing to a controlling force, much to the alarm of those around her.
That theme is reprised on the very next track, “Old Habits Die Hard,” a slice of synth-pop splendor whose fatalistic subject matter is juxtaposed with crisp beats and stuttering vocals-as-texture. Like Lady Gaga before her, Hughes’s multimedia presentation is more forward-minded than her actual music, which unapologetically embraces familiar pop archetypes. The album lacks a rousing anthem like CollXtion I’s “Sanctuary,” but the hooks come fast and furious: “Vintage,” co-written by Australian wunderkind Troye Sivan, is doused in squelchy synths and cowbells that recall early Madonna, while “Casanova” comes with a three-tier chorus, each more infectious than the last.
“Need You” slowly unfolds to a pulsating groove, less a pop song than a meditation: The refrain “I don’t need you anymore” is repeated throughout, and Hughes and guest vocalist Nate Campany of Valley Girl trade verses like they’re floating in utero. “Love is a condition of the head,” she declares on “Downtown,” and she can’t resist couching the giddy enthusiasm of “That’s So Us” with a cynical disclaimer: “You make me not wanna die.” This delicate balancing act of delivering heady lyrics in accessible three-and-a-half-minute doses is largely successful, but Hughes doesn’t just toe the line of straight-up bubblegum pop on the sickeningly sweet “That’s So Us”—she steps in it.