Crash’s cover makes me smile. You might prefer the deluxe take in which Charli XCX, crouched slightly further from us, is caked in blood, her hair in gore-licked strands. But I like the surreal perfection of Charli the popstar, unmarked and glamorous, cracking your windshield on a clear day. It’s as if we have driven into her unexpectedly and she’s none the worse for it. Actually, she’s coming after us. It’s sick album art for two reasons: as an arresting image of power, risk and contradiction, you want to consider the woman who’s leapt on the hood, but more importantly, it’s a metaphor for Charlotte Aitchison’s trajectory into the mainstream. She hasn’t arrived in fits and spurts. She has been reshaping pop in her own lane, and now, she’s on the super highway. You will pay attention because she is too big to swerve.
Anyone who’ll frantically sing along with Charli for the first time this year – and certainly, there’ll be many such people, girls and guys bumping through their biggest club nights evaaahhh with a JD and coke – may have only seen her name when ‘Break The Rules’ airs on PureGym TV. It’s part of the accepted Charli story: teenager strays from industry cliche, becomes known for dancing on a school bus, goes wild and weird, cannily assembles some of the most unusual diva music ever made, and enters the 2020s as a flashpoint for experimental poptimism. That’s the SparkNotes summary for a second-tier subject. To those who haven’t been following her career, she may reasonably be a case of “Oh yeah, her,” a two-hit wonder who emerges when you’re slamming 5k on the treadmill.
The rest of us are almost unbearable fans. Charli’s time on the fringe of the music business, and her dizzying maturation, has given that rarest of things: a blueprint for how the radio might sound if artists and labels sipped booze from each other's bellybuttons. Musicians as diverse as Christine & The Queens and Black Country New Road have credited her influence as someone who does whatever she wants, how she wants, taking a party to its merciless event horizon. And that’s still her only hobby – partying. It’s all over Crash, not lyrically but in texture, pace and space. “I’mma fuck you up,” she warns on the dense funk of ‘Baby’, scratching your ears while abducting your feet.
Dextrous, hyper-melodic assaults have been Charli XCX’s stock in trade since 2017’s Number 1 Angel, the beginning of her avante-pop period. Yet she’s even better at firing electro-dance production towards the limits of known sanity. Her incredible three-record run of Pop 2, Charli and my personal favourite, how i’m feeling now, unsettle you as often as they pass the rum bottle.
She’s always had the knack of fucking with her voice so it sounds like a DJ effect, a finger hovering over the midi button. This lands you in a cyclone of passion or regret as you’re looped and screamed at, bludgeoned by immense love. Sometimes, she feels like a computer trying to fathom what went wrong. In other moments, her fractured singing is so excited it can’t contain itself. “Call your digits but the phone kept ringing,” she gushed on how i’m feeling’s ‘party 4 u’. “Wish I knew what you were thinking.” Three more Charlis joined her there in a rush of warm keyboards before they were sucked into a crowd. The instruments around her have tended to morph, blacken and grate too, such as on 2019’s peerless ‘Click’, where synths saw alongside Kim Petras and lose their bearings in an industrial crescendo.
Yet Crash represents the end of her contract with Atlantic Records, and quite possibly, the end of a woman we have to come to depend on for boundary-breaking art. In the runup, she’s been blatant about drawing some sort of line in her career. Last August, she tweeted a headstone inscribed with the release date; in the press, she was vociferously pissed at label bosses telling her to post dog photos in order to be ‘real’. Text messages were screenshotted. Rina Sawayama, after several false starts, finally confirmed they were collaborating. The album, already known as The Janet in fan circles, was discussed as a reflection of her early releases and an exclamation point on the madness she’s played with. “I was so inspired by the ‘80s at the beginning of my career, and kind of like, drawing from the past and within myself,” she told HITZ in November. “And I think because of that, this album is actually the most me thing, y’know. It’s really pulling out my inner pop demon.”
The result? A brash, half-excellent LP that smothers some of what she’s mastered. Crash smashes old Charli with nu Charlie, and succeeds as much as it fails to make that connection interesting. This massive, coiffed Belinda Carsilse figure isn’t the lovestruck android in a galaxy far away, but has caught her transmissions, interpreting them for an audience who just want to sink a tequila before sunset.
Lead single ‘Good Ones’ is a major dud. It sounds like anything you might’ve heard from an EDM kid in the last decade or more, the “oooh oooh oooh”s pounding gracelessly over a Eurythmics-style beat. Charli’s falsetto tries to add some light and air, but is dragged under a template that seems – it hurts to say this – as generic as they come. The drums, the melody, the club-by-numbers clickage . . . Wow, you wince. Surely it’s only a blip?
Hmmmm. While ‘Good Ones’ is aggressively bad and never beaten on that score, it does set your Dross Metre on high alert. And some of what’s to come, such as ‘Yuck’ and ‘Used To Know Me’, makes the beeper cry louder. They’re two of the worst songs she’s ever written. Producer Mike Wise, a safe pair of hands for Ellie Goulding, Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys, dials in a stretch of not-quite disco bookended with synthetic whirls. The latter track, meanwhile, is kind of appalling, taking Robin S’ 1992 house breakout ‘Show Me Love’ and doing absolutely shit all with it. You might as well listen to the original; Charli’s interpolation bulldozes the defiant mark of a last stand, and swaps in a weak kiss-off, like replacing a plinth with a deck chair. The sample knocks around just as we expect it to, as we’ve heard a thousand times. Like Charli’s ‘1999’, her callbacks to pop’s past (not to mention her own) are the least essential tracks by a mile.
That’s basically the end of the crap, though. Crash’s highs are intoxicating. Even its less-than-stellar cuts play quick, hard games from the pop playbook, spinning them just enough to make you stick around.
‘Baby’, the funky one, exemplifies this beautifully with a mean heart. A guitar struts in the background while a five-note riff shimmers on the chorus, allowing Charli to accompany her instruments rather than the other way around. As I’ve mentioned, the “Fuck you up” outtro is delicious. She sounds like a teenager, one of the Let’s Eat Grandma girls pulling a switchblade on someone after class. Suddenly, there’s a violent outburst of violins, stopped dead by another “baby”.
There’s also a welcome re-team by Christine of The Queens fame on the rousing ‘New Shapes’. Yes, it doesn’t live up to ‘Gone’ from the self-titled record, but you’re never in doubt that these two know their 1980s balladry inside out and seek to stamp that same spirit with trickier, 21st-century force. Howls criss-cross the lead vocals handled by Chris, Charli and indie electrolyte Caroline Polacheck, who wobbles on her big solo but finds a more low-key counterpoint to her costars. Thematically, ‘New Shapes’ years for an elastic coupling. Maybe the song’s beau can be reborn in new dimensions, odd alignments, or perhaps a place where this relationship makes sense.
By far the most astounding track waves passage into the final third of the album, the centrepiece of a three-song hattrick. ‘Lightning’ is simply hard to sum up. Like its namesake, it strikes at so many points you want to sit back and admire them in slow motion. At first, we are treated to plaintive synth chords, as distantly electric as construction machinery. Charli’s voice enters, vocoded: “There’s danger in the dark of your eyes / But something ‘bout you brings me to life / Got me here and now.” SCREECH. Bastardised robot harmony. SLAM. “You struck me down like lightning!” The roof collapses, a stiletto boot pounds the earth. Nasty, low-frequency haemorrhages hit the keys. And then, from the blue, a classical guitar claws for romance. Wielded by songwriter/producer Ariel Rechtshaid, it’s a wondrous glimmer of something epic and sad.
The ballad that follows, ‘Every Rule’, can’t hope to compete, yet it’s a fine slow sway, with a wordless post-chorus motif bewitched by infidelity. It reminds you that Crash could’ve torn up more rules (hey there, young Charli on a school bus) en route to shipping every side of Charlie XCX into a coherent project. But despite some huge missteps and a safer aesthetic, she has capped off an uneasy fascination with clean hooks amidst dry ice, the type she can’t help but pervert. Long may that piece of her rest. Or if it returns, let’s give it a little more XCX shock treatment.
Are you a Charlie completist? Follow her ripples across pop with our special playlist . . .
Are you a Charlie completist? Follow her ripples across pop with our special playlist . . .