As a teenager, Romy Madley Croft burned CDs to play in gay clubs, loading them with unabashed floor-fillers like Ultra Naté’s cathartic house hit “Free” and Ian Van Dahl’s elegiac Euro-trance anthem “Castles in the Sky.” She later went on to become guitarist and co-lead singer of the xx, the influential indie band she founded with her school friends Oliver and Jamie. Together, they were masters of the spaces in between, their intimate ballads built around sparse guitar riffs and fleeting tableaux. But she cast her mind back to her queer club days—when pop was appreciated “without cynicism or irony”—after she started writing for stars like Dua Lipa and Halsey, in collaboration with EDM collagist Fred again.. (real name Fred Gibson). Somewhere along the way, she began to realize that she wanted to keep some of these euphoric hooks for herself.
On her debut solo album Mid Air, Romy works with Gibson and Stuart Price, the producer best known for his work on Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, to capture some of the heady magic of those early nightlife experiences. The result is a meticulously crafted homage to the strobe-lit, chart-topping dance music of the 1990s and 2000s—though, at times, it misses some of the tension that made Romy’s songwriting with the xx so vital. Jamie xx reunites with his former bandmate for the ebullient come-up of “Enjoy Your Life,” a Beverly Glenn-Copeland-sampling banger that might also have sounded at home on his own 2015 debut, In Colour. There are thumping Euro-trance homages in the form of “Strong” and “Did I,” where wisps of Romy’s vocals dovetail with acidic synths. Elsewhere, over the mournful Balearic pulse of “The Sea,” her sighs stretch out like glimmers of light on the surface of the Mediterranean.
Romy’s translucent vocals are the connecting thread between the xx’s vulnerable emo-R&B and the dance-pop of Mid Air. They often evoke the rawness of Cassandra Fox or Everything but the Girl's Tracey Thorn, carrying a humanity that roughens the glossy sheen of the production behind it. On “Twice,” her voice is sumptuously layered as she urges: “Pull back the covers/Let me feel the warmth of your skin.” It’s at once fragile and strong, her tactile delivery foregrounded over the insistent, choppy beat behind it. In moments like these, simple lines are elevated to something piercingly real. At other points, the record comes off clunky, like on the U-Hauling anthem “Weightless,” where she sings awkwardly of “Bending over backwards/Under my skin” and hurries to fit unwieldy longer phrases into a breath.
The album soars where it manages to elegantly contrast Romy’s vulnerability with the mirrorball dazzle of the production. This is the case on Mid Air’s two best songs: the sultry piano house opener “Loveher” and the unreservedly joyful disco closer “She’s On My Mind,” produced with techno experimentalist Avalon Emerson. On the latter, Romy tells a familiar story of being hopelessly in love with a friend, and in the song’s final act, the instrumentation drops to a murmur as Romy delivers a twist: The friend confesses her love, too. The arc of the song is simple, sweet and effective, and it highlights what is missing from some of the record’s less satisfying floor-fillers. Just as its music video holds steady on a single image (Romy hugging her cousin, both of them united in a shared experience of grief), the pounding “Strong" clings to one repeated lyrical idea (“You don’t have to be so strong”).
Romy is at her best when her songs—rather than radiating one straightforward, effusive emotion—have some element of contrapuntal friction, similar to that of the xx’s earliest sketches. On “Loveher,” she sings of holding hands with a lover under the table, not because of shame, but because “some things are for us.” These delicate, whispered lines oscillate between the competing desires to stand proud in your identity and to keep your intimacy intimate. While writing for the xx, Romy avoided using gendered pronouns in her songs—it’s notable that she not only uses them, but makes them central to the songs on Mid Air. In the UK, we are living through a period of increasing bigotry, with anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes on the rise, and transphobia poisoning the well of the government and mainstream media. Romy's voice may be hushed, but in this climate, her message is loud and clear.
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