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‘True Romance’: Why We Still Love Charli XCX’s Debut Album
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘True Romance’: Why We Still Love Charli XCX’s Debut Album

Charli XCX’s debut album, ‘True Romance’, brought a pop maverick to the world, and marked the start of an enduring love affair with her fans.

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Charli XCX’s legendarily quickfire mind defies expectations. She rarely delivers straightforward affairs. If you look for predictability, you’ll never find it. Her career is peppered with one-offs, abandoned projects, out-of-character detours… and even though 2013’s True Romance was officially her debut album, it had a tumultuous journey. As Charli said in 2022, “I don’t feel like I’ve had a very traditional trajectory…”

Listen to ‘True Romance’ here.

The backstory: “Every corner of my own romantic history is explored on this record”

Calling True Romance a debut album is a bit of a stretch: three releases, with original Charli XCX songs, predate it. All of these – Charli’s self-released 2008 album, 14, and the 2012 mixtapes Heartbreaks And Earthquakes and Super Ultra – contain clues to the development of True Romance.

14, a completely self-written album on which Charli sang all the vocals and played all the instruments, was created when Charli was a teenager, and is now extremely rare. “The songs I write are about my mates and experiences,” she explained in the CD booklet. Charli retained this basic strategy for True Romance, openly drawing inspiration from her immediate life. “Every corner of my own romantic history is explored on this record,” she said of the album.

The mixtapes offer a more obvious route into True Romance. Several tracks recorded for the album made their first appearance on either Heartbreaks And Earthquakes or Super Ultra. Like 14 and True Romance, these mixtapes also evoke her state of mind at the time of their recording. “All the songs are about love,” she said of Super Ultra. “Sometimes it’s stupid love and sometimes it’s heartbreaking love. It’s about being confused.”

The breakthrough: “I’ve always done this my own way”

Just before Heartbreaks And Earthquakes dropped, Charli XCX had a very, very big hit. I Love It, co-written by Charli and featuring her vocals, was a 2012 smash for Icona Pop. It flipped the chessboard: all of a sudden, Charli XCX wasn’t just someone making tracks for a cool audience, she was a budding international star in her own right. In addition, the song’s success made her very prolific. “I write – since I Love It blew up – every day,” she said in 2014. “Every single day.”

But Charli did feel the pressure from others now she had topped the charts. “Everyone was talking about HITS,” she told Popjustice in 2014, speaking of the period following I Love It. “‘Keep the hits for yourself,’ ‘Don’t go into writing sessions because the label will be angry if you give hits away,’ all that kind of thing. And after a while it all got a bit, like, ‘You know what, fuck off.’ It was stupid. I’ve always done this my own way.”

The songs: “All the best songs are written in half an hour”

The songs on True Romance are very different to I Love It. They are shadowy, electronic, almost gothic pop. “To me, it’s a coming-of-age record for teenagers,” Charli said in 2013, at the time of the album’s release. “I wrote it when I was growing up, mainly during the years of 16, 17, 18. So it is a messy record, but that’s what life is all about, right? Especially during those years, things are messy. If the record sounds like that, that’s fine.”

One of the best Charli XCX songs, You (Ha Ha Ha), uses the Gold Panda track You as a bedrock, and is emblematic of Charli’s lyrical inspirations at the time she recorded True Romance. “It’s a breakup song,” she said in 2013. “It’s one of those things where you know you got into a bad relationship at the very beginning, but you just kind of roll with it. By the end of it, when it’s finally over, it’s not a surprise; you’re over it ’cause you knew it was gonna happen.”

Some of True Romance’s songs date back years. Stay Away, one of the earliest tracks written for the album, was composed in two hours in 2010. “I think it was around that time that I realised that things were starting to come together,” Charli said of Stay Away in 2012. “My image and my attitude matched my sound, and everything just clicked. Things have been snowballing ever since then, which is really great.”

Elsewhere, Nuclear Seasons is an intriguing outlier on the album, moving away from direct emotional monologue. “I think it sort of reflects a state of cultural decay,” Charli said of the track in 2012. “In youth culture in particular, I don’t feel like there’s anything for people to really grab onto these days… I think it has a lot to do with that void in music and culture in general that we’ve all been feeling.”

Overall, True Romance’s songs are living examples of Charli’s versatile, start-it-and-see approach. “I don’t like to spend a lot of time on anything,” she has said. “I think the faster a song is written, the better it will be. All the best songs are written in half an hour. You can’t dwell on things.”

The release: “I’ve written a pop record from the heart”

“I am so happy to have finished my first album, True Romance,” Charli said, with a palpable sigh of relief, in a press release issued ahead of the record. “For me, it’s a very emotional record. I suppose I kind of grew up through the process of making this album.” First expected in 2012, True Romance was eventually released on 12 April 2013: two years after Stay Away, the album’s first single, came out.

Charli didn’t stick around with True Romance for much longer: she embarked on a short series of live dates and issued one more single from the album (What I Like), but her head was already somewhere else. She had moved on to the songs that would form 2014’s SUCKER, and started to talk about them in interviews. “It’s definitely a step away from True Romance, that’s for sure,” Charli said of this as-yet-untitled next record. “It’s less electronic, and it’s more live.”

As for True Romance, Charli XCX’s debut album remains an essential grounding in Charli’s art, an early masterclass in her supernatural knack for slipping avant-garde techniques into pop smashes, without ever sacrificing listenability. “I’ve written a pop record from the heart,” she said of True Romance, “and when people hear it I hope they want to dance and cry at the same time.”

Find out which ‘True Romance’ cuts remain beloved among the best Charli XCX songs.

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