As a Tumblr page brandishes hyperactive and ultimately throwaway slices of Internet-fueled culture, so does Charli XCX shred various musical trends and reknit them into shiny electro-pop formulas. The Hertfordshire-born singer is kind of like the British version of Ke$ha, crafting fuzzed-up, meme-happy party music that’s just a tad more cerebral than it lets on, but probably still not as smart as its producers think. Which means that True Romance, despite its constant emittance of a drunk-n’-messy neon glow, is a little too slickly produced and self-aware to deliver the kind of spontaneous creativity or carefree chic that Charli XCX aims for.
Of course, there’s still fun to be had. “What I Like,” with its snappy, stuttering vocals and accompanying slumber-party video, is exactly the kind of enjoyably stupid anthem that could be found playing both at a Williamsburg loft full of twentysomethings and on your middle-aged mother’s car radio. And yet even when being silly, True Romance has a difficult time avoiding the impression that it’s trying too hard, evoking the same kind of one-dimensional poseur quality that continues to dog the bleach-haired, unicorn-onesied Miley Cyrus as she desperately attempts to shed her Disney-kid persona. Charli XCX is more glossy fashionista than punkish pop upstart, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem except she’s quite overtly reaching for the latter, awkwardly attempting to deliver a more sincere, rough-edged sound that, judging from mercurial, percussion-driven cuts like the twinkling “Grins” and the chunky “You (Ha Ha Ha),” hovers somewhere in the dreamy, glittery dance zone between Purity Ring and Robyn.
The results are way off that mark, of course, so while a few slivers of genuine spontaneity can be found throughout True Romance, particularly in the watery K-pop-esque opus “Nuclear Seasons,” the sum as a whole feels rather forced. There’s something unnerving about an artist whose mien is meant to project flighty-cool indifference and yet whose Wikipedia page reads like a gushing, studio-penned hagiography, citing the “breakthrough success” of an album that’s not even out yet. Charli XCX’s ’90s-gazing persona has all the affected clumsiness of a focus-grouped retail item, assembled, edited, and tweaked by dozens of creative professionals until her image, true to its nebulous celebrity appeal, can be used to sell anything from lipstick at Sephora to neon leggings at Hot Topic and almost anything else at the local megamall. The music on True Romance is almost incidental, a postscript to the larger brand, confirming that whoever “Charli XCX” actually is, she’s more product than artist.