For a pop star like Charli XCX, framing is everything. At least since the release of her 2016 Vroom Vroom EP, the British singer’s career has been viewed as a constant push-and-pull between two conflicting musical identities: pop futurist or mainstream hitmaker? While her more spontaneous and experimental releases – from the forward-thinking pop of her 2017 mixtapes to 2020’s landmark quarantine album how i’m feeling now – might be more impactful in the wider musical landscape, her 2019 album Charli successfully bridged that gap by offering a portrait of the artist that sounded polished and seamless yet boundlessly messy and weird. Rather than exploring new ways of merging those two sides, CRASH steers clearly in one direction, making the star-studded Charli seem more like an attempt to achieve blockbuster status than a free-flowing experiment. It’s been positioned as her “main pop-girl moment,” with Charli ushering in her sellout era and embracing the “ultra pop star” version of herself. Whichever way you put it, it’s a move that comes into sharp contrast with the bracing vulnerability of an unplanned project like how i’m feeling now.
What’s potentially concerning about this commitment to dive into “all that the life of a pop figurehead has to offer in today’s world – celebrity, obsession, and global hits,” is not really the suggestion of a conventional pop sound; Charli has more than it takes to sell it. It’s how all of it is delivered with a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that shows her pulling away from the sincerity that has marked so much of her output, perhaps in an attempt to create some necessary distance between her and the audience after the intensely collaborative process and revealing nature of her previous record. CRASH is the final in a five-album deal Charli signed with Atlantic when she was a teenager, and it has a way of obscuring her true intentions by presenting her as this “otherworldly figure” whose next move you’ll never be able to predict. In effect, it subverts the expectation of the artist as someone always inching closer to a more definitive and unified sound, instead hinting at a perpetual evolution.
Framing aside, CRASH has a defiantly restless character that’s still quintessentially Charli, even if the aesthetic – from the carefully crafted visuals to the ‘80s-style production – leans firmly into nostalgia. If there’s one way she’s removing a piece of herself from the picture, it’s by becoming less self-referential than simply referential. Sure, there are echoes of ‘Gone’ propelling highlight ‘Constant Repeat’, and I don’t need to explain how the album extends her long-standing fascination with car metaphors. From a stylistic standpoint, you can draw parallels to Charli’s work in the early 2010s, further complicating the relatively recent perception of her as a pop vanguard. But where previous Charli projects have seemed more interested in tracing her own musical history by playfully reimagining her own songs, CRASH finds pleasure in interpolating classics, most outwardly on ‘Used to Know Me’, which uses the backbeat from Robin S.’s 1990 hit ‘Show Me Love’, and ‘Beg for You’, a collaboration with Rina Sawayama that lifts its melody and chorus from September’s Europop jam ‘Cry for You’. And while she once reminisced about singing Britney Spears back in her old neighbourhood, here she actually enlists ‘…Baby One More Time’ co-producer Rami Yacoub for the track ‘Lightning’.
Though ‘Used to Know Me’ and ‘Beg for You’ stand among the album’s more lackluster moments, ‘Lightning’ finds Charli at her most electrifying and inventive. Aided by Ariel Rechtshaid’s textured production, the track both builds on and flips its power ballad foundations, accentuating the fractured emotions at its core. With lyrics like “Tell me what you want and I’ma give it to ya,” it’s one of the songs you can easily interpret as commentary on the major-label system that tends to exploit female stars like Charli from a young age. The album’s opening lines certainly take on a new meaning in this context: “I’m about to crash into the water, gonna take you with me/ I’m high voltage, self-destructive, end it all so legendary.”
Charli might well be trying to make a point about the music industry here, but it’s not enough to approach the album solely from this angle. The narrative around how i’m feeling now was as much about the unprecedented circumstances that led to its creation as it was about its heartfelt portrayal of relationships during lockdown, and while it’s understandable that CRASH shifts the focus more towards Charli’s recalibrated image and sound, it has a way of undermining the emotional nuance that continues to define her writing. You can talk about what it means for Charli to team up with peers like Caroline Polachek and Christine and the Queens on ‘New Shapes’, or about whether the track really hits (for my money, it does), but there’s also something to be said about how it manages to reframe the self-destructive tendencies laid out in the opener – her inability to stay in one place or commit to a single partner – as potentially liberating for both parties: “We could fall in love in new shapes.” Her interplay with Polachek and Héloïse Letissier adds new dimensions to this unconventional study of intimacy, each responding to its central declaration from a unique perspective.
Though the sonic palette of the album mostly reflects Charli’s renewed sense of confidence, it’s not the only mode she operates in. Over dreamy, pensive production courtesy of Ian Kirkpatrick, she returns to the theme of self-sabotage on ‘Move Me’, where she holds herself accountable for her actions: “Call it what you want, I got a habit for destruction/ Take all of your trust and then betray it like it’s nothing/ I think it’s in my soul, the way I run from something real and leave you wondering.” Here, rather than feeding into the recklessness that pop allows for, she uses its emotive capabilities to communicate her love in a way that’s earnest and grounded. It doesn’t always work: ‘Every Rule’ might be another affecting ballad, but it doesn’t hold the same impact as, say, Charli’s ‘Official’. More interesting is the way it’s juxtaposed with the goofiness (and cynicism) of follow-up ‘Yuck’, a reminder that Charli’s work surveys contradictory emotions as much it does musical styles.
Ultimately, it’s hard to decide if CRASH is an album about self-destruction or reinvention. It finds Charli XCX settling into a recognizable sound, but it comes with the promise that it’s only temporary. Regardless, it no longer seems fair to relate to her music as an expression of conflict, but rather multiplicity and openness. When it comes to fully embodying those qualities, however, the album musically stands in its own way, keeping things safe instead of taking more chances to step into the unknown. It lacks the sense of freedom she tapped into with Charli, even if, by the end, she proves that’s exactly the goal behind everything she does. The two final tracks, ‘Used to Know Me’ and ‘Twice’, kill the momentum the album has mostly sustained up until this point, the latter reaching for a kind of transcendence but failing in execution. As Charli considers the end of the world to remind herself of what really matters in life, she doesn’t leave the impression it’s really the end – at least not the one where she takes us with her. Whatever the future holds, she keeps this personal vision at the back of her mind, knowing only she can make it real.