Carmen Chin | March 22, 2022
On the album art for Charli XCX’s latest studio album Crash, the British ‘anti-pop star’ is sprawled across the bonnet of a car clad in a bikini and heels, peering through a cracked windshield with blood oozing from her forehead. It signifies the result of her transformation from a catalyst of pop mayhem to her emergence as a behemoth of artistic spirit; mainstream pop chart-toppers as the music industry’s unstoppable force, and Charli as the immovable object in their way.
Crash is the final instalment of Charli’s five-album deal she signed with Atlantic Records when she was 16. Imbued with a splashy display of calls for power and self-ownership, the singer-songwriter cleverly uses her final contractual obligation to a mega-corporation to question the power balance between female pop musicians and the industry at large. “[It’s about] power and the idea of power balance, especially within the music industry, like taking the power back,” she said of Crash. “But then also questioning how much you’re really taking the power back if you’re playing into an archetype of what a woman is supposed to be in pop music, and not really like presenting answers to that question, but more just like leaving it out there for people to interpret.” This theme of reclaiming sovereignty as an artist is also symbolic of a 13-year arrangement that’s seen her constantly chafe against the record label in pursuit of autonomous creative expression, even going so far as to telling her higher-ups at one point: “If you want a puppet, just go and get yourself a puppet.”
Even the musicality of Crash is a statement in itself: all 12 tracks coalesce into a smorgasbord of immense range—be it punchy pop funk, ornate dream pop or the manic post-internet glitches of hyperpop—becoming an intent abstraction of her own discography that’s dipped its toes in various styles and genres over the years. It’s almost as if Crash exists in the liminal space between the goth inclinations of True Romance, the cyber chic of Pop 2, the electronic flourishes of her eponymous album Charli and even the vulnerability of how i’m feeling now.
In spite of the wild pendulum swings she’s taken with her music thus far, Charli’s fascination with pop music as a product has always been at the crux of her craft. “I’m interested in the concept of selling out,” she tweeted once. It certainly tracks on several entries on Crash; she unabashedly draws on commercial hits of yore with more than just a heavy hand. ‘Beg For You’, enlists guest vocals from fellow hyperpop veteran Rina Sawayama, infuses traces of Swedish pop star September’s Eurodance hit ‘Cry For You’, which itself samples Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’. ‘Used To Know’ also comes with a level of familiarity, encasing within it samples of New York house musician Robin S’ ‘Show Me Love’ spliced with Charli’s signature hyper-polished crispness and a varied vocal melody. There’s a risk with tracks like these that are so ostentatiously inspired by old chart toppers, but Charli makes them hers with a handful of fembot soundscapes, harp plucks and silky post-choruses that allow them to comfortably take their places among the hallmarks of today’s radical, avant pop while presenting themselves as a love letter to the millennium era of Darkchild production classics.
Even then, the rest of Crash goes on to bend the conspicuous, cookie-cutter motifs of today’s Billboard 100 mainstays into new shapes that embody Charli’s favourite notes of incandescent, garish sounds. ‘New Shapes’, assisted by Christine And The Queens and Caroline Polachek, marries swells of unmistakable ‘80s production with embellishments of towering snares, blaring synthesisers and a wailing backing vocal that soars. ‘Baby’ maintains those highs as a retro-futuristic, pop-funk anthem, gilded with the euphonic, jagged repetitions of the “I’mma fuck you up,” and “I’mma make you mine,” hooks she spits in the chorus. ‘Constant Repeat’ is another divine track—it’s an insouciant anthem that spreads its wings with layers of pitch-shifting vocals but truly takes flight with textures of chatter that glisten like fragments of broken glass. Self-prophesying lyrics withstanding (“Got me on repeat”), a cursory look at its production credits, only to spot returning Charli collaborator Lotus IV, is bound to elicit a “no wonder” moment.
When Charli does try her hand at churning out some radio fodder, there’s a degree of cynicism that’s hard to miss. ‘Yuck’ adopts traces of the nu-disco trend weaving its way into contemporary pop (take Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, or even the Doja Cat and SZA collaboration ‘Kiss Me More’ as examples), but makes snarky twists in its denouncement of textbook seduction attempts: “Yuck, that boy’s so mushy / Sending me flowers, I’m just tryna get lucky.” ‘Lightning’, on the other hand, recalls the chimeric production present on the Janet Jackson classic ‘Control’, taken to the next level with robotic vocal synths and glitches.
Crash isn’t without its tender moments. ‘Every Rule’, produced by PC Music head A.G. Cook and Oneohtrix Point Never, is an unanticipatedly affectionate cessation to an old flame that’s slowly being doused out. Twinkling synths lace its definingly lavish melodies reminiscent of a slow dance at a ‘90s prom. ‘Move Me’ is a smouldering, if pedestrian against a record of back-to-back standouts, ballad of run-of-the-mill lyrics depicting incandescent love affairs.
Charli XCX has never been one to play the safe game, though if she seemed at all as disillusioned and burned out as she once claimed to be, Crash has without doubt signalled her re-emergence as an artist of creative force to be reckoned with. A masterclass in sonic versatility that embraces pop conventions, leaps into territories of unknown soundscapes and reassumes artistic autonomy, Crash never once falls short of the expectations heralded by some of mainstream music’s most talented curators; the record instead continues to challenge the purview of what defines a conformist sound. So, if Crash truly does usher the coup de grace of Charli’s decade-long reign as a major label musician, the album really only is a symptom of what she’s capable of once she’s free from the shackles of corporate control.
Listen to Charli XCX’s Crash below.