Charli XCX Crash Asylum/Atlantic
Charli XCX is an artist built on contradictions.
She is simultaneously a critically-acclaimed indie darling but mainstream enough to claim multiple Top 40 chart entries in the UK, and separate No.1s on both the UK Official Charts and the Billboard 100. She is signed to a major label, but often operates like a DIY bedroom artist, chucking out singles and mixtapes as she pleases. At home in the underground, but enough of a household name to front documentaries and podcasts for the BBC, she makes pop music, but maybe prefers not to. There’s a disruptive, rebellious streak to her artistry that has defined the ten years since she wrote the hit-making hook for Icona Pop: “I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs/I crashed my car into a bridge… I! DON’T! CARE! I LOVE IT!”
These tensions carry over onto her fifth record, Crash. Self-described as her “sellout” album, Charli promised “ultimate pop music” inspired by the 80s as a chaser to the futuristic hyperpop of her Mercury Prize-nominated lockdown album how i’m feeling now. Eurythmics-flavoured lead single Good Ones, with its high-concept, Hannah Lux Davis-directed music video, made it seem as though Charli intended for her major label contract to end with a budget-blowing bang. But the era has left fans split, unsure of whether she has serious “main pop girl” ambitions or is satirising them with “ironically” lacklustre tunes she’s putting out to fulfil the record contract she has been so vocally unhappy with over the course of her career.
There are certainly tracks on this record that smack of laziness and lack of care. It’s difficult to make September’s exquisite Cry for You uninspiring, particularly if you essentially create a straight rerecord as Charli has done on Beg for You, but it simply falls flat. Even the presence of a criminally underused Rina Sawayama fails to give the song lift off, squandering the potential of this anticipated coming together of two of the most exciting figures in pop music.
Elsewhere, the disco-leaning cuts are serviceable – Crash in particular wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia – but suffer from the genre fatigue that has seen other recent tracks that share this sound pass by with little impact.
Brilliance does flash on occasion. Album standout Baby wears its Janet Jackson influences proudly, and Charli’s own unique stamp even more so – marrying a classic Jam & Lewis-inspired beat with a bouncy chorus and tongue-in-cheek lyrics about shagging your lover to death. Constant Repeat’s lilting melody and “you could have had a bad girl by your side!” refrain is endlessly sticky, while Yuck grabs you by the ear if only because the deceptive sweetness of the verses, followed by the rug-pull of the chorus, elicit genuine delighted surprise at the fakeout. These tracks hint at what could have been a solid no-skips album, but which is ultimately let down by unimaginative lyrics and forgettable melodies. Lightning in particular opens with the overused line “don’t know what to say, one look and then you blow me away” and never recovers, while Every Rule is so anodyne that even repeat listens fail to commit the tune to memory.
Part of the Charli XCX conceit is that it has always been difficult to pin down whether she truly wants the mainstream success she keeps threatening to make a play for. Crash doesn’t offer much clarity in response to these questions, and – strangely, for a so-called sellout album – is unlikely to draw in any newcomers to the XCX world. For fans who enjoy the whiplash uncertainty of the Charli experience, however, there’s a lot of face value fun to be had.