Charli XCX: Crash review – subverting pop’s rules, or just playing by them?


Torn between chart success and the pop vanguard, the artist self-consciously set out to make a ‘major label album’ – but it’s full of mixed messaging

It’s interesting to compare the cover of Charli XCX’s fifth album with that of its 2020 predecessor, How I’m Feeling Now. The latter featured the now 29-year-old singer-songwriter reclining on a bed, staring distractedly at a video camera: a suitably understated, ostensibly off-the-cuff image for an album written and recorded on a whim during lockdown, whose contents were subject to input from her fans and whose making was documented in verité Instagram clips. By contrast, Crash arrives bearing a heavily staged photograph that looks like it came straight from a style magazine fashion shoot. It features XCX sprawled over the bonnet of a car in a bikini and heels, looking through a cracked windscreen with blood pouring from her forehead. What should be an image teeming with violence and shock-factor is nulled by the singer’s expression, though. For someone who is supposed to have been hit by a car, she looks oddly blank and bored; mildly sullen rather than shocked.

With Crash – her final album for Atlantic – XCX says she decided to make “a major label album in the way that it’s actually done”, and embrace “everything that the life of a pop figurehead has to offer in today’s world – celebrity, obsession and global hits”. It’s a hairpin turn from her usual way of doing things: the off-piste diversions of her 2017 mixtape Pop 2, on which she scoured the globe for unlikely collaborators in order to imagine a pop world vastly more interesting, eclectic and colourful than the real thing; her frequent collaborations with PC Music producers, which propelled the emergence of the manic, extremely online sound of hyperpop. It’s astonishing that an artist signed to a major label since her teens has pulled off a career like this, but it’s also unsurprising that her relationship with the industry has been fractious. XCX has often seem torn over whether she aspires to chart success or the pop vanguard. She presents Crash as a bravely defiant experiment, kicking against the ongoing love for “authenticity” in pop, but the idea that making ultra-commercial, label-pleasing music is a bold act of rebellion doesn’t stand up to a vast amount ofscrutiny.

What you might call mixed messaging leaks into the music. Crash deals in DayGlo choruses and thuddingly obvious interpolations of old hits that ratchet up the knowingness of XCX’s concept. Beg for You, which features Rina Sawayama, interpolates September’s 2006 Euro-dance hit Cry for You, which itself recalled Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy. Used to Know Me is essentially the influential Stonebridge remix of Robin S’s Show Me Love with a different vocal melody – one that isn’t as good as the one on Show Me Love. At times you can hear the weariness and cynicism creeping in, and these moments undersell XCX’s well-established talents as a writer and performer of straightforward, low-concept hits. The wan disco-pop of Baby, punctuated by oddly joyless, forced-sounding whoops, can’t compare to her 2014 hit Boom Clap or Icona Pop’s fabulous XCX-penned 2012 single I Love It.

Some of the latter song’s screw-you spirit seeps into Yuck, a witty examination of the moment a partner’s quirks unexpectedly render them unfanciable. The title track stacks shards of vocal samples over an 80s boogie-inspired backing to potent effect. But contrary to its concept, Crash is at its best in its subtler moments. The frequently heartfelt lyrics pick their way through the various stages of a breakup, from wistful memory of a failed relationship’s flowering on Every Rule to regret on Good Ones and the lock-up-your-boyfriends bullishness of Baby. New Shapes is a charming collaboration with fellow pop outliers Caroline Polachek and Christine and the Queens. Every Rule, meanwhile, is sparse and moving, its lyrics fixed on small details – “cigarettes up on the balcony, wrapped in nothing but sheets” – but its mood overwhelming.

The moments when XCX makes her distinctiveness felt put the weaker moments in even sharper relief. Listening to the AutoTune-heavy Constant Repeat or featherweight closer Twice, you wonder if there’s anything that separates this from the acres of boilerplate pop already out there. You can bang on about high concepts and process until you’re blue in the face but it doesn’t make the actual music any more interesting. Pop music isn’t conceptual art, however much critics with pretensions might want it to be. There’s nothing wrong with applying smart ideas to it, but the end result still has to be sparky and exciting regardless of the intention.

Not only does Crash not work – or at least not entirely – it leaves you wondering about its author’s motivations. For all the messaging around it, it sometimes feels less like a smart concept than a shrug; the work of an artist seeing out a fraught five-album major label deal with a half-hearted “whatever”. If there’s a saving grace here, it’s that the mercurial XCX – now a free agent – will doubtless return with something more interesting sooner rather than later.

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