Album Review: Charli XCX commands the driver’s lane on ‘CRASH’

Charli XCX Crash Album Review

The British Pop-phenom strikes a new artistic balance with her fifth studio album.

From the moment Crash was first unveiled to the world, its existence has felt contentious. The album’s promotional campaign has centered heavily on this being the final album in Charli XCX‘s five-album contract with Atlantic Records: the album announcement almost abrasively notes ‘Crash’ being “the fifth and final album in her record deal.” This approach uncomfortably recognizes the seemingly inevitable end of a relationship while still being in its midst. But despite the unconventional dynamic, Atlantic nor Charli have seemed to renege on their commitments to each other, giving the era the high-octane “main pop girl” aura that’s her eluded previous projects.

As a record label employee myself, I was skeptical of this approach from the outset. Her persistent, sarcastic social media posting about the trappings of being a major label pop star felt like a ruse to deflect from her commercial ambitions while also protecting herself from feeling dejected if “Good Ones” didn’t catch on.[1]The results on this one are mixed – “Good Ones” boasts 100 million plays across DSPs, the most for any of her solo singles since 2014’s Sucker, but failed to enter the coveted … Continue reading Was this genuine artistic exploration? Or was it the only avenue that Charli could channel her angst about being stuck in her current record contact?

Thankfully, as Charli explained her thinking, the concept felt less trite. As she told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe: “I finally decided to utilize the major-label infrastructure in a way that I’ve never done before. I wanted to explore what it meant to be a traditional pop artist.” It’s an almost Warholian expedition during an era in which focus has been placed on subverting commercial desires and expectations to be seen as a more “authentic” artist. In a less expanded form, she’s interested in the concept of selling out, and her place as both a pop artist and a musician with significant Indie cred makes her best suited to explore its intricacies.

That conflict between Pop stardom and auteur freedom has been at the forefront of Charli’s career. She’s received consistent adoration from Indie publications like Pitchfork while never achieving household name recognition like many other acts on the Atlantic roster (Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran). She’s never cleanly fit into mainstream or Indie circles, and that dichotomy comes to a head-on Crash. The title directly references the sonic collision between these forces, which feels even tenser given the abovementioned business dynamic. But the title is also self-referential to her career thus far and is, of course, a vehicle reference, which Charli is known to love. ‘Crash’ also conjures morbid imagery via car crashes, which feels unfortunately apt given that this is Charli’s first album since the tragic death of friend and collaborator Sophie. These themes of loss and tension are woven into the album’s narrative but certainly – and thankfully – don’t dominate.

The opening title track revs the record’s engine, an enamoring build-up track that works well as an intro and a standalone. “I’m about to crash into the water / Gonna take you with me,” she glitches, like the Femmebot that captivated audiences in 2017. Tracks 2-4 will undoubtedly endure as some of Charli’s best straight-ahead Pop work: the phenomenal Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek assisted “New Shapes” takes a refreshing 80s form, each artist playing to their strengths, shining collectively and independently. “Good Ones” commands with its earworm roulade hook; brushing up against the irresistible standout track “Constant Repeat,” they highlight the cyclical theme of the album both in their lyrical and musical composition.

As evidenced by the album’s sample choices, Charli’s talents as a tastemaker are as keen as ever. While she’s known for giving pop acts like Cupcakke and Pablo Vittar more mainstream attention, the ‘Crash’ roster is notably more selective. The Rina Sawayama boosted “Beg For You” matches September‘s “Cry For You” note for note, a new canon in LGBTQ music after making the rounds on Twitter in 2018. While the Sawayama feature feels underutilized (or even unnecessary), the sample choice shows that Charli is paying attention to the behavior and taste of her fans and how to actualize their pop fantasies. The second sample of the Robin S classic “Show Me Love” on “Used To Know Me” accomplishes a similar feat while also paying homage to the House origins of her best tracks.

The weakest moments are expectedly the midtempo ones. “Every Rule” provides the vulnerability needed to contrast the unavailability of songs like “Yuck” or “Good Ones” but lacks the latter’s melodic intrigue. It’s not that she’s incapable of writing a compelling slow song – it’s hard to imagine a song like “Lightning” not translating into a successful piano version – but “Every Rule” is destined to be plain no matter how it’s presented. “Move Me” fares a bit better, but the shadow of (of all people) feels impossible to shake when listening to its chorus and modest breakdown. In these tracks, Charli’s weaknesses as a lyricist present themselves more visibly. However, the midtempo “Twice” sees her maintain a streak of near-perfect album closers: it simultaneously meets and defies the expectations of a ballad closer while leaving the listener optimistic despite its morbid subject matter.

For fans of Charli’s more experimental, hyperpop offerings, ‘Crash’ will inevitably be some level of a disappointment because it sounds comparatively familiar. But ‘Crash’ still pulls inspiration from within and outside of Charli’s career thus far, and as a result, never feels like she’s compromised too much on making her “first” major-label album. The thesis she outlines is realized while remaining on her artistic terms. Ultimately, ‘Crash’ strikes the right balance between innumerable opposing interests, the achievement of an artist who better understands the world and her place in it.

Listen to Crash on Spotify below.


1 The results on this one are mixed – “Good Ones” boasts 100 million plays across DSPs, the most for any of her solo singles since 2014’s Sucker, but failed to enter the coveted Hot 100.

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