Charli XCX explores pop’s frontiers, new releases from Kim Petras and Robyn, and soundtracks to ‘A Star Is Born’ and ‘Suspiria’
It was like a secret communion from five minutes into the musical future. Last week’s visit from a true British royal, Charli XCX, saw the micro pop queen preside, like a Powerpuff Girl on Fhloston Paradise, over a handful of sold-out solo shows in Sydney and Melbourne. (She plays again, this Friday, at The Oxford Underground in Sydney.) Though here in support of mainstream princess Taylor Swift, Charli’s sound is forged from an ever-so-alternate dimension: the forward-thinking artist and her collaborators, among them PC Music’s A.G. Cook and emergent avant-pop star SOPHIE, have taken pop’s elements and reshaped them into gleaming, hyper-synthetic new shapes. Her hits (“I Love It” with Icona Pop, “Boom Clap”, “Fancy” with Iggy Azalea) don’t compare to her fan “hits”: the candy-coloured experimental synth pop of the recent “Focus” or last year’s masterful mixtapes Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, which dictate the majority of the evening’s setlist. While sometimes duetting with a digitally disembodied Carly Rae Jepsen (on the majestic heartbreak of Pop 2’s “Backseat”), Australian singer Troye Sivan, or even herself, Charli’s main partner tonight is the audience, who know and chant every line of these songs like the bizarro-world smashes that they are.
The horizon is promisingly inclusive, too. Both the rambunctious “Girls Night Out” and blippy, arcade parlour mini hit “Boys” bring a gallery of drag, trans and queer performers to the stage for a show of realness, and the audience exudes warmth as Charli rambles through a teary thank you to her LGBTQI supporters. The singer’s quick crowd poll also reveals that at least half the fans were born in the 2000s (“I’m old”, laments the 26-year-old star), which means that while Charli’s recent single with Sivan, “1999”, might qualify as childhood nostalgia for some, its tales of Eminem, MTV, and TLC are pre-history for many here. There’s something touching, then, when Sivan’s line “My room singing Michael Jackson” is met with a loud, collective “Hee, hee” from the audience. You can almost feel the late superstar smiling from the beyond, approvingly.
The funk of forty-thousand years also infects the new record from German artist (and Charli collaborator) Kim Petras, whose eight-track mixtape TURN OFF THE LIGHT, VOL. 1 reconstitutes “Thriller” as sinister electropop for 2018’s Halloween party landscape. Opening with the straight-up horror-movie keyboards and Petras’s devil-waif sighs of “o m e n”, the album’s sleek throwback post-disco is riddled with allusions to prowling the night, munching hearts, chugging blood and generally invoking the Dark Lord. “You’ve got nowhere to run, there’s no way you’ll make it out alive,” she threatens on the vocoder-coated “Close Your Eyes”, while the infectious title track (featured in Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) even boasts a spoken-word cameo from none other than ’80s TV spookstress Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Like great horror, though, the record’s cartoon lyricism is just the surface; the cheeky instrumental “TRANSylvania” – Petras made headlines at age 16 for being one of the world’s youngest to gender transition – suggests heavier themes of identity lurking within the scary synth bangers. It’s the perfect soundtrack for casting the circle and calling the guardians, or simply dancing with your long-dead phantom self in some darkened corner of the club.
If Charli and Kim are the bubblegum pop capsules exploring deep space, then their mothership is surely Robyn, the great Swedish dance-pop pioneer who makes her long-awaited return with Honey. “I’ve got some news for you, fembots have feelings too,” she once sang, and the new album is the sound of an artist processing a turbulent period to emerge at something resembling a new emotional paradigm. The arpeggio video-game synthesisers of first single “Missing U” conjure a strange euphoria that contrasts with the elegiac lyrics, which serve as a lament for departed friends and lovers. (“It’s quite exciting, even though it’s really painful,” she has said of the song.) That feeling is almost otherworldly by the album’s centrepiece, the hypnotic instant classic “Honey”. Anchored by a simple, propulsive drum pattern, the track manages to both add on layers of Robyn’s ghostly sweet vocals and feel infinitely spacious. “Get me right where the hurt is,” she chants, en route to ecstatic abandon. “Down in the deep, the honey is sweeter.”
Heartache and loss haunt the record, yet the expansive, shimmering disco creates a sense of time moving beyond memory, of a mind surrendering to an unknowable, even exciting future. The robotic “Human Being” suggests a “dying race” re-learning the motions of romance, and the album’s music follows suit, casting convention aside. The wonderful Eurocheese of “Between the Lines” interfaces with Robyn’s ’90s dance-pop roots, “Ever Again” channels the enduring melancholy of Arthur Russell, and “Because It’s in the Music” swirls with the lush synthetics of Italo disco. It’s the kind of album where the oddball moments shine, perhaps even brightest: the gorgeously simple and silly “Beach 2K20”, apparently inspired by Robyn’s samba lessons, mixes up a cocktail of cowbells, popping bass, synths and an email “send” chime to materialise on some faraway galactic beach with pink sand and rainbow skies. “Come through,” Robyn beseeches her travelling pal, nonplussed. “It’ll be cool.”
From the sublime to the blustery, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s soundtrack to the latter’s occasionally great, though suspiciously retrograde reworking of A Star Is Born bellows and screeches to convincing effect, but like the film it’s betrayed by its adherence to a false binary of “authenticity” and “artifice” in popular music. The stadium blues rock of Cooper’s opener, “Black Eyes”, which is performed with a bona-fide band that includes Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, but still somehow sounds like Blueshammer covering Pearl Jam, is swiftly contrasted by Gaga’s drag club take on “La Vie en Rose”, the song that prompts Jackson Maine’s troubling on-screen quest to dismantle the “fake” and get a look at the “real” Ally.
“Tell me something girl, are you happy in this modern world?” Cooper asks on the album’s hit, the dismissively titled “Shallow”. “Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?” Gaga replies, elevating the song to power-ballad melodrama, and it’s the closest the album, and movie, come to some kind of musical détente. The fact that the record is front-loaded with Cooper’s granola dirges (“Out of Time”, a squalling blues jam; “Alibi”, complete with phony crowd noise) and dispatches the supposedly soulless-and-inferior pop songs to the back end is a problem: as in the movie, Ally’s pop isn’t believable, and the lack of effort in crafting her superstar perspective comes off as condescending.
The lightweight Spotify pop of “Why Did You Do That?”, with its goofy synth loop and now-infamous line “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” is presented for our presumed contempt (though co-writer Diane Warren knows better), while “Look What I Found”, a smoky, horn-laden R&B stomp, at least seems to invite some respect. While neither reach real-life Lady Gaga level, they’re vastly preferable to the album’s ostensibly authentic stuff. And while there’s comfort in the corny ’80s balladry of Gaga’s “Always Remember Us this Way”, which might be have been a Bonnie Raitt hit, what’s the point when both it and the tear-jerking Whitney Houston knock-off “I’ll Never Love Again” (an undeniably moving moment on screen) aren’t going to engage with the present? “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” Cooper sings on the hokey, if lovely “Maybe It’s Time”. He might have taken his own advice.
Another film about the birth, albeit more twisted, of a powerful female star, Luca Guadagnino’s audacious but frustratingly over-baked reimagining of Dario Argento’s Suspiria features another high-profile soundtrack auteur: Radiohead wizard Thom Yorke, who follows bandmate Jonny Greenwood to scoring for the silver screen. Yorke’s muted Suspiria eschews the demonic chants and whispers of Goblin’s histrionic electro-prog original, favouring a more mournful sense of pervasive evil. Full of cheery numbers like “The Universe Is Indifferent” and “Belongings Thrown in a River” that are sure to enliven the office Christmas party, it largely comprises film cues steeped in minor key piano, distended synth lines and Yorke’s familiar, ethereal braying. There are songs, too. “This is a waltz, thinking about our bodies”, Yorke sings on the creaky, beautiful lullaby “Suspirium”, which would fit snugly into any later Radiohead album, while “Volk” impressively recalls less the work of John Carpenter (a touchstone for every second horror score these days) than Carpenter’s analogue forebears in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
As a standalone, it’s a fine suite of low-level menace, although it runs into trouble paired with Guadagnino’s studied, exposition-heavy darkness, which smothers the film’s sometimes delirious, should-be triumphant witch-rite-of-passage with history lessons that betray a lack of faith in genre. As Elvira might remark: “Does anybody know what that movie was about? I’ll tell ya: It was about an hour-and-a-half too long!” Would it have been too much to ask for a Mother Suspiria rap? At any rate, as Yorke incants on “Suspirium”, “All is well, as long as we keep spinning.”
It was like a secret communion from five minutes into the musical future. Last week’s visit from a true British royal, Charli XCX, saw the micro pop queen preside, like a Powerpuff Girl on Fhloston Paradise, over a handful of sold-out solo shows in Sydney and Melbourne. (She plays again, this Friday, at The Oxford Underground in Sydney.) Though here in support of mainstream princess Taylor Swift, Charli’s sound is forged from an ever-so-alternate dimension: the forward-thinking artist and her collaborators, among them PC Music’s A.G. Cook and emergent avant-pop star SOPHIE, have taken pop’s elements and reshaped them into gleaming, hyper-synthetic new shapes. Her hits (“I Love It” with Icona Pop, “Boom Clap”, “Fancy” with Iggy Azalea) don’t compare to her fan “hits”: the candy-coloured experimental synth pop of the recent “Focus” or last year’s masterful mixtapes Number 1 Angel...