The old Charli XCX can’t come to the phone right now…or so the eight-month press cycle preceding her fifth album Crash would have you believe. For almost a year, Charli XCX’s social media has been filled with images in line with her self-proclaimed “villain era:” satanic rituals, Faustian motifs, press releases with statements like “I’ve abandoned the goodness in my life, in favor of the sinister.” She’s repeatedly stated that with Crash, she intends to “sell out” and become the major label Pop Star she’s almost become time and again for over a decade.
The buildup has been frustrating and fascinating at the same time—is Charli making a subversive statement on the confines of the pop music industry? Using up her major label budget in attempt to be as big as possible before going independent? Is the marketing strategy part of the art here? Can a marketing strategy be art in the first place?
But in the end, Crash’s metanarrative doesn’t serve its music. Instead, it actively detracts from it. The best way to hear Crash is probably in the way very few of her fans (including me) will: unburdened and unaffected by the mythos, discourse, and angry tweets about Charli XCX being a sellout. The worst part of this album has been this exhaustive build-up, overinflating what is, in reality, just another good Charli record.
Crash does make a case for Charli at her most approachable. The influences vary outside the PC music tendencies of 2020’s how I’m feeling now to incorporate late ‘eighties Madonna, Janet Jackson’s New Jack Swing, UK garage, and a tad of ‘nineties house. The songs are short and optimized for maximum streams. The album uses more samples and interpolations than any of her previous work; “Beg for You” repurposes “Cry for You” by September, and “Used to Know Me” samples “Show Me Love” by Robin S. They make the songs feel familiar before you even know them. But Charli doesn’t entirely abandon her previous sound—she widens it. You could say Crash is more mainstream than Charli or how I’m feeling now, but that doesn’t quite make this a sell-out record.
No track better encapsulates her newfound fusion of ‘80s dance and hyperpop than “Lightning.” A fire-cracker of a song, “Lightning” blends Songs from the Big Chair-esque synths with some of the most intense vocal modulations on a Charli XCX album since Pop 2’s “Lucky.” Selling out or not, Charli’s ability to make a “mass-appeal” pop song feel urgent and important is still as sharp as ever here.
Bolstered by the production of A.G. Cook and Oneohtrix Point Never, standout “Constant Repeat” is sleek and atmospheric. It’s the closest the selling out motif comes to Crash’s surface. The lyric “got me on repeat” reverberates through the echo chamber of the outro, both a takedown of a dependent romantic partner and a sly message to her listeners streaming the song.
The most surprising part of Crash is that the majority of it is Charli as usual—meditating on sexuality and self-worth with smart, undeniable hooks. Singles “Good Ones,” “New Shapes,” and “Baby” fit nicely into her nuanced take on eighties pop. “Every Rule” is almost pessimistic—even at her most delicate and vulnerable, she’s self-destructive “Twice” is a euphoric ode to the fleeting, making a satisfying—if not stratospheric—finale.
In an album this short, there should be no room for error. That makes Crash’s missteps feel glaring. “Beg for You” sounds half-hearted. Although “Yuck” adds some much-needed groove to the album’s second half, its novelty wears off after the first listen. Charli’s approach is better suited to the looser, less formal setting of Pop 2 and how I’m feeling now. She’s most exciting when her music feels in-the-moment and spontaneous. Crash has a lot more in common with Charli, a bit more polished, a bit more worked on, smoothing out the metallic beats until they’re just abrasive enough. If the album just had the spontaneity of its namesake, it would be killer.
The album’s single most exhilarating moment occurs in its first minute: the title track’s rhythmic repetition of “I’m about to crash.” The delivery is visceral, veering on the edge of the highway at thrillingly dangerous speeds. It’s Charli in a nutshell: emotional, explosive, even existential. Maybe she’s not in her “villain-era,” but Charli XCX is defying expectations.
Crash is out now.