Channeling one’s insecurities into art is an X-Static Process. (Just ask Madonna.)
Back in early February of 2014, a singer named Allie X mysteriously popped up on the blog scene in GIF form with her debut single “Catch,” twirling ’round with a giant syringe in hand.
Armed with a Fame Monster-era Lady Gaga-like dark-pop aesthetic and production recalling the urgent synth sheen of CHVRCHES and Purity Ring, the enigmatic artist amassed a following within her self-crafted world of “X.” (Don’t worry: if X is a cult, it’s one of the nice ones.)
CollXtion I, Allie X’s 8-track formal introduction one year later, easily ranks as one of the best releases of 2015, and one of best pop debuts in recent memory; from the self-destructive YOLO anthem “Prime” — “be a beautiful monstrosity” — to “Sanctuary,” an ecstatic devotional that reaches near-“Like a Prayer” heights of worship.
She penned songs for other artists in the time since, including a considerable amount of Troye Sivan‘s debut Blue Neighbourhood (including “Youth”) alongside longtime collaborator Brett McLaughlin (also known as Leland), while still tinkering away at what would become her second collection with help from industry heavyweights, including Jordan Palmer, Chris Braide (Sia), Cirkut (Kesha) and Billboard (Britney).
Before CollXtion II arrived, Allie X did something innovative, which major label acts might even one day adapt (steal) for themselves in this age of instant gratification: she created a Spotify playlist called COLLXTION II UNSOLVED, where she’d upload one-takes and demos, allowing fans to weigh in and hear her progress in real time. (It’s still there to stream.)
Eventually, she solved it, resulting in what is now one of the year’s best pop records.
While the second CollXtion is a diverse offering sonically speaking, one thing (mostly) unites the work: self-sabotage.
If you’ve picked up on an emotionally destructive pattern in Allie X’s work, congratulations: she’s well aware. She’s even dedicated a whole song to the process: “Old Habits Die Hard,” a vaguely Ladytron-sounding wall of hard synths and even harder-to-break bad habits.
“Every time I say goodbye, I find a way to justify / Run to your arms…old habits die hard.”
She can’t help it: she’s putty — or, rather, paper in his hands.
Much of the album is made up of songs that sound like hits, including the whistling opener “Paper Love,” but if any song on the CollXtion represents the utmost pop promise of Allie X, it’s “Casanova”: a standout, and an early contender for one of the top songs of 2017.
Dedicated to a bad romance, if you will — “the kind of guys I dated for a while who turned me on with how little I meant to them,” she says — the singer submits to her dark-sided darling across Disclosure-esque shuffling beats. After a hair-raising build-up that promises to lead to an even bigger chorus, she deceives with a slick strut instead.
“Casanova fucked me over, left me dying for your love,” she cooly declares.
It’s venomous and vulnerable all at once — and that brief speak-sung bridge is a vogue-worthy cherry on top.
While Allie X demonstrated the Xtent of her theatrical chops on CollXtion I, she tones it down on II, embracing the deeper, breathier tones of her voice. It’s a good choice.
On “Downtown,” she succumbs to an eX — surprise, surprise — against her better judgment.
“I need a miracle to break from this ritual,” she proclaims on the melodic midtempo, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a playlist with Selena Gomez‘s own conflicted “The Heart Wants What It Wants.”
Occasionally, Allie X’s angst cup doth overflow: the dancehall-tinged “Lifted” veers into a kind of Halsey “New Americana” rebellious teen territory. (“All we want is to forget,” she cries on the escapist anthem.) Similarly, the ominous “Simon Says,” an ode to an imaginary friend, recalls Melanie Martinez‘s brand of sing-songy adolescent-themed angst.
Her imagination is refuge, and it isn’t always such a shadowy place: the Troye Sivan co-written “Vintage” speeds back to the future along a bouncy ’80s beat, as the singer envisions a bright and nostalgic love for herself.
“How things have never been,” she dryly describes the otherwise euphoric track.
It’s not as though she’s forever alone, though: Allie X finds, and celebrates, the rare kind of friendship in life that feels fated in “That’s So Us,” a relatable, you-just-get-me explosion of emotion.
“You make me not want to die,” she lovingly declares. If that ain’t the most morbidly sweet sentiment. That’s so Allie X. And if the fierce,Violet Chachki co-starring video for “All The Rage” ever got a sequel, this would be the song to soundtrack their us-against-the-world BFF spree.
Stripped of all the “Vintage” bells and “Paper Love” whistles, “Need You (feat. Valley Girl),” the haunting final song recorded for the collection, ends up as one of the other shining standouts in its simplicity.
Songwriter Nate Campany (Carly Rae Jepsen) assists on the sparse and hypnotic ode to denial, as the two trade verses attempting to convince themselves over and over like a mantra: “I don’t need you.”
The bridge, full of quiet admissions, is especially crushing: “I miss the calm and your nirvana / I miss the fire and all your drama.” Like Imogen Heap‘s “Hide & Seek,” the vocal layering makes “Need You” sound like a lonesome transmission from another planet.
All this heartbreak sounds like torture. But would she have it any other way? Unlikely.
“Heaven could fall and angels swarm, but Hell is ours to face,” she croons on the collection’s gorgeous piano-led closer, “True Love Is Violent.” Like the message behind The Cardigans‘ “You’re The Storm,” Allie X is prepared to weather the worst of it, because the water isn’t always going to be as serene as it looks in those “Vintage” polaroids.
She might have dressed in a dunce cap, looking like a sullen grade school student sitting in the punishment corner on the cover of Collxtion II, but don’t be mistaken: Allie X is no fool.
Not so smart in matters of the heart? That’s a different story. But when it comes to scribing good pop, in spite of all self-doubt and self-destruction, she’s right at the top of the class.