With Crash, Charli XCX Shifts Her Sound & Aesthetic

Last year, British electropop star Charli XCX tweeted, “rip hyperpop.” The tweet shocked many—especially coming from the artist who brought bubblegum bass and hyperpop to broader audiences through projects like 2016’s SOPHIE-produced Vroom Vroom EP or 2020’s quickly recorded quarantine album how i’m feeling now—but Charli has always gone at her own pace, on her own terms. Yet, her new album Crash presents her as merely another generic pop star, supposedly as a performance art piece about selling out that doubles as her last record on Atlantic (and therefore her as-of-now last chance to use those major label resources). Crash is Charli’s Let’s Dance: the album where a pop star fully embraces the mainstream after years of artsier excursions. Unfortunately, the end result lacks personality, trading her strengths for lyrically emptier and sonically blander songs laser-focused on mass appeal.

Crash isn’t a bad album, but it’s not specifically a great Charli XCX album. Rather, it frustrates in that she spends more time convincing you that she’s a pop star at the height of her powers than actually demonstrating it. Most of Charli’s best work isn’t outright designed to sound big; she instead artistically succeeds by spotlighting specific emotions or moments (anything from a turbulent relationship to boredom over online shopping during a pandemic) and making them feel big, which her producers adapt to by making relatively minimal elements sound like everything. On records like Pop 2, Charli, and how i’m feeling now, the production has purpose—to match her melancholic and sentimental sides, to reflect personal tension, or to display the euphoric highs alongside those things. Charli isn’t a particularly profound lyricist, but her ability to vividly express her feelings and experiences, as well as the futuristic electronic production she often chooses, makes her music endlessly compelling.

This is why Crash, despite its accessible mainstream sound, is so confusing. No amount of big production names—which here include Swedish hitmaker Oscar Holter, Ariel Rechtshaid, Justin Raisen, Oneohtrix Point Never, The 1975’s George Daniel, and PC Music’s A.G. Cook—can solve the dearth of substantive songwriting; in fact, it sometimes exasperates it. Crash shows Charli XCX trying to be a Janet Jackson type figure in the era of Dua Lipa, but Charli is too chaotic to be the modern Janet, and has too much personality to be like Dua Lipa (whose music is certainly listenable but highly inoffensive). She has the pop star iconography, but the production is rather undistinguished and the songs feel empty, like they’re trying to take up more mainstream cultural oxygen than they’re actually built for. Charli XCX remains a good pop songwriter, though in interviews she’s said that for this record she took some pitch tracks (partially-written songs shopped around the industry). Even discounting that aspect (which probably isn’t a big part of the album anyway), Crash still waters down what makes Charli great in favor of something far more generic.

The opening title track, produced by A.G. Cook and George Daniel, is a fine but not particularly great opener, with big 80s drums and lyrics about Charli XCX’s wild, self-destructive nature (“I’m about to crash into the water/Gonna take you with me/I’m high voltage, self-destructive/End it all so legendary”). “New Shapes,” featuring Caroline Polachek and Christine & The Queens, is much better; it’s no “Gone” or “Tears,” but the 80s gloss (did I mention that Crash is the past decade’s nth 80s-style pop record?), solid features, and fierce chorus (a bluntly delivered “What you want/I ain’t got it”) make it one of the album’s best, most complete-sounding tracks.

Then there’s Crash’s Oscar Holter-produced lead single “Good Ones,” which upon release was Charli’s worst solo track since 2018’s irritating “Focus.” Clocking at two minutes, “Good Ones” is vapid and has a fart of a nothing of a hook (basically only a note held from the pre-chorus to the chorus), backed by a bland synthwave-inflected electropop instrumental. As far as the other singles, the Rina Sawayama-featuring, Petra Marklund-interpolating “Beg For You” is easily the best Crash song, though with her nuanced vocal performance, Sawayama far outperforms Charli, whose signature autotune is actually a setback this time. “Baby” is a raunchy dancefloor track with new jack swing touches (except once again, Charli XCX is not Janet Jackson), “Every Rule” is a decent ballad that compared to her better ones sounds rather phoned in, and “Used To Know Me” is forgettable, corporate-sounding Eurodance.

The deep cuts are fine enough. “Constant Repeat” has emotionally focused verses but lackluster production, “Lightning” has a great chorus, “Move Me” merely exists, and “Twice” has some interesting PC Music touches that Crash is sorely missing. “Yuck,” however, is among Charli XCX’s worst songs, with boring Future Nostalgia-type production and garbage lyrics missing the self-awareness of something like “I Got It” or “Shake It;” it’s an appallingly bad cut that nearly ruins the album’s second side.

By simplifying her music for broader chart audiences, is Charli XCX tapping into a different skill set or taking the easy way out? The answer is probably a combination of both, but it’s still a question worth asking. I don’t really buy into Crash’s “performance art” concept–Charli has better records that play into the industry system, and she’s spent her entire career showing her audience all the different ways that pop music operates–so that leaves a decent but unremarkable pop record sprinkled with a few great moments, released by an artist who has much more talent than this (considering less than five years ago she made arguably the pinnacle of modern pop balladry, the ballads on Crash especially disappoint). Now that she’s out of her Atlantic deal, hopefully Charli XCX goes back to more genuinely subversive, forward-thinking pop music, but for now, her other releases have plenty of seriously great material.

Still, on release day I bought the indie-exclusive grey vinyl for review (I probably wouldn’t have urgently bought it otherwise). While the mixing and digital mastering is decent, the unidentified vinyl cut is an unflattering rendering of the same compressed digital master. The soundstage seems dried out, and vocals sound grainier than desirable. My copy, pressed by either GZ or Precision (North American copies say “Made In Canada” while European copies say “Made In Czech Republic,” though my “Made In Canada” copy only has GZ matrix numbers), has some surface noise (mostly drowned out by the loud cut) and a minor dish warp, but is acceptable overall. (It doesn’t seem like GZ cut lacquers or DMM plates, as the runouts feature their matrix scheme used for outside cuts.) The LP comes with a gatefold jacket, a printed inner sleeve with lyrics, and a credits insert; the overall package is fine for the $22.99 retail price, but whether or not you need the vinyl over the CD or digital version comes down to how much of a fan or completist you are.

(Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor, music obsessive, avid record collector, and art enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.)

COMMENTS
xtcfan80's picture

She looks and sounds the same to me.....lame.

MalachiLui's picture

is a legitimately great, forward-thinking pop record that's one of the best projects of the 2010s. 'crash,' however, is rather dull as noted in my review above.

Daniel García's picture

Malachi, do you believe in expensive cables?

MalachiLui's picture

yes, i believe cables make a significant difference in sound quality. the components in one's system of course makes a bigger difference but once all those components are good, nicer cables are essential imo (but they all sound noticeably different, and don't spend your entire life's savings on cables).

X