Review: Charli XCX Commits to Avant-Pop Partnership on 'Number 1 Angel'

Charli XCX was already an alternative-leaning pop star when she broke with the punky rant “I Love It” with Icona Pop and dropped Sucker, an EDM-Devo reinvention of the quirkiest, most Bow Wow Wow-ing early Eighties New Wave. But in the past year and a half, this hook monster with legitimate Top 10 hits under her belt has taken a neon night drive into the avant-garde. For her 2016 EP Vroom Vroom, her recent single “After the Afterparty” and this 10-song, 37-minute “mixtape,” Charli has teamed with the constellation of artists surrounding London digital-only label PC Music. The output from these acts, including producers A.G. Cook, Sophie and Danny L Harle, is a chirping and blipping simulacrum of pop music that sounds like an arch joke about consumerism. PC Music deal in the sleekest digital farts and twinkles, melodies like J-Pop performed on a glitching Game Boy and vocals manipulated into alien avatars. The real calling card of these productions is “hyper-reality,” an audio effect that sounds like watching a hi-definition TV with motion smoothing on. It’s a technique that’s usually reserved for cutting edge noise musicians like Oneohtrix Point Never, techno theorists like Fatima Al Qadiri and weirdo cassette labels like Orange Milk Records. Charli XCX is going from dueting with Iggy Azalea on “Fancy” to being the carnival barker of a virtual reality funhouse populated by a gaggle of SoundCloud post-modernists.

Thejury is still out on whether she is lost in the experimental Matrix or actuallythe earliest adopter of pop’s next futuresex lovesound. But Angel makesthis pioneering human-hologram marriage seem far more natural and cohesive thanon Vroom. The beats aren’t as abrasive, her vocals are distended inways that are disorienting but not jarring. Most of the songs are about thosemoments before a relationship goes to the next level: These are still classicpop songs mostly about sex and cars, but the sexual yearning in the lyrics iscompounding the nostalgic yearning of the music. The sounds are full of cosmicsynths, vintage techno noises and 808 booms that sound rendered in CGI. On”ILY2″ and “Emotions” the drones start to suffocate,creating the same combination of wistful, erotic and isolated that made thesynth-heavy Drive soundrack a success. And the album houses nobetter statement on sex, alienation and capitalism than a naughty synth-popsong from the perspective of a pin-up poster (“Babygirl”). Acombination of chilly noises and hot lyrics (“Cold like ice,petrified/Loving what you’re doing to me,” she sings in “WhiteRoses”), these robot sex anthems are storming into 2017 like pop music’sdirty Blade Runner reboot.

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