Photo Credit: Emily Lipson
This is the album Charlotte Aitchison – you probably know her better as Charli XCX – should have made at the beginning of her career, back when she was still a pop star on the rise releasing albums such as True Romance and co-writing platinum-selling mega-hits like Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Camilla Cabello’s “Señorita.” But as she reintroduced herself as a hyper-pop queen on 2019’s Charli and followed it up with the ground-breaking Bubblegum Bass experimentation of the 2020s how i’m feeling now, recorded in quarantine during the pandemic, she stepped down from her mainstream ambitions and headed towards her unique world of boundary-escaping club music and electropop that sounded like nobody else.
On her fifth album CRASH, Charli XCX once again seems to reinvent herself. In an interview with Evening Standard back in 2014, she argued that ”the best artists are the ones who constantly change,” and it’s obvious that she attempts to become the same kind of musical chameleon that Madonna and David Bowie achieved. ”I’m about to crash into the water,” she sings on the crisp, catchy, guitar-driven opening title “Crash”, ”gonna take you with me.”
But where Madonna and Bowie always did something brand new when they reintroduced themselves – remembering Madonna’s late-’80s eroticism or Berlin-era Bowie’s transformation into the self-destructive art-noir persona of the Thin White Duke – Charli XCX often comes off as a lesser version of Dua Lipa on CRASH – less fun, less hilariously infectious hooks, and less consistent. Sure, it does sound like a modern pop record, some of the hooks do slap hard, and the production – credited to so many people that naming them all here would be way too exhaustive – is very professional, indeed. But truth is that where how i’m feeling now felt like something coming straight from the artist’s heart, CRASH sounds like a professional product created by a big pop corporation.
But after the initial disappointment, when you have come to terms with the fact that this isn’t the revolutionary next big step forward in pop music you hoped it would be and rather somewhat of a step back for Charli as a risk-taking innovator, there’s still a very solid pop album to uncover here. One of the album’s strongest aspects is the artists Charli has chosen to feature. It’s hard to name a single pop star she hasn’t been involved with in one way or another, but both ”New Shapes” featuring Caroline Polacheck and Christine and the Queens and ”Beg For You” featuring Rina Sawayama are among the album’s best tracks, much thanks to how great they all work together as artists with ambitions tending to embrace the artsy stuff.
But if Charli XCX is now a pop star, she wants to make sure she’s still not like everyone else. ”Do you realize I could have been the one to change your life? // You could have had a bad girl by your side,” she sings on ”Constant Repeat” and the bad-girls-like-bad-guys-theme is mirrored also on the hard-hitting lead single ”Good Ones.” Unusually for a pop album, the two best tracks are located close to the end. ”Yuck” is pure pop fun and if the DJ doesn’t play ”Used to Know Me” next time I go clubbing, I will complain to the manager.
Despite its short runtime, CRASH feels like a big album and an important part of Charli’s career. It can make her the megastar she’s clearly aspiring to be, and if it is a disappointment from a critical perspective, mainstream generic pop music has been less nice to us before.