Charli XCX Makes a Messy, Exciting 'CRASH' into Her Own Legacy

BY Kaelen BellPublished Mar 17, 2022

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It's here! Five months, some mild Twitter beef and a surprisingly late-in-the-game (for a Charli XCX album, anyway) leak later, CRASH has finally careened out of the garage. The rollout for Charli's fifth and last full-length record for Atlantic has been bumpy, defined by a surprising — and vaguely worrisome — level of hostility between fan and artist. So, was all the hubbub worth it? Now that it's arrived, where does CRASH leave us? 

Those who were disappointed by the record's sleek handful of singles can breathe a sigh of relief: CRASH is largely stronger than the sum of its disparate parts. However, those who were hoping for some kind of definitive Charli album will have to hold their breath a little longer.

Those semi-controversial singles account for some of the record's weakest moments — "Good Ones" remains too faceless, while the frenetic, bubbly production on "Baby" can't make up for its grating chorus — though they're strengthened in the context of their more dynamic counterparts. "Move Me" is all icy clatter and crystalline atmosphere, with beautiful, aching verses offset by an ecstatic (if familiar) chorus. The spring-loaded synth figure that spirals beneath "Constant Repeat" is another highlight, with its warbled, circling outro feeling earned despite the song's relative brevity. 

The new jack swing of the title track introduces CRASH with a blast of irrepressible energy, opening the record on a manifesto à la Charli's "Next Level Charli." It's the most obvious example of Janet Jackson's apparent influence. But, like a handful of songs on CRASH, it feels a touch constricted. The chorus might've hit once, twice more, while the tightly-coiled guitar solo could've — and should've — been allowed to snake beyond the song's confines.  

The second half of the record stumbles more than the first. The stomp-clap groove of "Yuck" feels too much like a Dua Lipa B-side, while "Every Rule" is too toothless — featuring a traditional Charli topline melody, an issue that pops up a handful of times across the album — to make much of an impression at all. Taken as a whole however, the album manages to even out in terms of quality, a consistent energetic clip and some intuitive sequencing helping prop the weaker songs against the sturdy scaffolding of tracks like "New Shapes" and "Move Me." The record hits its nadir at "Used to Know Me," featuring another prominent interpolation (this time of Robin S.'s "Show Me Love") that, much like "Beg for You," feels like the lukewarm result of a stan focus group.

CRASH takes flight the further Charli strays from the quasi-ironic "main pop girl" narrative cage that she's trapped herself in, when she allows her destabilizing energy to rattle the bars. "Lightning" is both the record's strangest and longest song, clocking in at a whopping three minutes and 47 seconds of frenzied percussion, sparkling Spanish guitar and vocoder-gargled vocals. It's also probably the album's best song, a taste of the weirdness that Charli is so adept at maneuvering within.

"Lightning" is also the only track on CRASH that feels sufficiently informed by the record's blood-streaked, Cronenbergian visual world. It's a bracing screech of burnt rubber and impacted metal amongst all the spotless chrome and polished glass; it's hard not to wish that Charli and her co-conspirators had leaned a bit further into this chaos.

There's been plenty of (premature) talk — on Twitter anyway, where 99.9 percent of Charli XCX opinion-havers seem to be — surrounding CRASH's perceived lack of quality and/or cohesion, the record's rollout leaving some fans wary. It's not necessarily hard to see why. Charli herself seems unsure of what CRASH is actually meant to be, oscillating between her particular brand of stan-approved self-aggrandizement and a vulnerable defensiveness that's come to define the record's narrative. Is it a go-for-broke attempt at genuine crossover radio play? If so, it fails by any obvious chart metrics. Is it an ironic commentary on pop stardom and industry machinations? If so, it falls short again. The unrefined narrative conceit that's been built around the album muddies a pretty strong set of songs, gently recalling the conceptual framework of St. Vincent's Daddy's Home — the sensation that you're listening to an album that, by its own creator's tacit admission, is perhaps unfit to speak for itself.

It's when you slough away all that baggage that you get to the viper-red heart of CRASH; it's a blindingly bright, gleefully energetic collection of pop songs from an artistic who's good at making exactly that. It's not Charli's strongest full-length statement — that honour still belongs to Pop 2 or how i'm feeling now, albums that encapsulate Charli's particular flavour of mangled, caustic beauty — but it's the kind of brash, whiplash-inducing pop album that only she seems capable of making at the moment. It's a bit messy, but most crashes are.
(Asylum)

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