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

Our take on the latest from the experimental pop star

Credit: Toby Zerna/Newspix/Getty

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.

The jury is still out on whether she is lost in the experimental Matrix or actually the earliest adopter of pop's next futuresex lovesound. But Angel makes this pioneering human-hologram marriage seem far more natural and cohesive than on Vroom. The beats aren't as abrasive, her vocals are distended in ways that are disorienting but not jarring. Most of the songs are about those moments before a relationship goes to the next level: These are still classic pop songs mostly about sex and cars, but the sexual yearning in the lyrics is compounding the nostalgic yearning of the music. The sounds are full of cosmic synths, 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 the synth-heavy Drive soundrack a success. And the album houses no better statement on sex, alienation and capitalism than a naughty synth-pop song from the perspective of a pin-up poster ("Babygirl"). A combination of chilly noises and hot lyrics ("Cold like ice, petrified/Loving what you’re doing to me," she sings in "White Roses"), these robot sex anthems are storming into 2017 like pop music's dirty Blade Runner reboot.