Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Charli XCX Crash

Atlantic / Asylum
Atlantic / Asylum

Charli XCX has been riding fast. It’s time to crash. Charlotte Aitchison is coming off one of the most exhilarating stretches for a pop star in recent memory. A decline in quality was inevitable, and on Crash she steers into the skid.

Since her fifth studio album was announced back in August, Charli has positioned this as her sellout era; she said that she sacrificed her soul to the devil to make a successful mainstream pop album. She’s joking, of course, though not entirely. Crash is the final album in a major-label deal that she signed with Atlantic Records when she was still a teenager; she is just now (perhaps) finally getting out of it.

From the desk of Charli XCX when she introduced Crash: “[It’s] a new chapter for me in which I embraced all that the life of a pop figurehead has to offer in today’s world — celebrity, obsession, and global hits.” That’s delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, but Charli has talked a big game leading up to the release — at least when she wasn’t addressing kneejerk negative criticism online. Unfortunately, Crash is a scattershot collection of ideas that doesn’t totally come together. It’s technically proficient and there are flashes of greatness, but it doesn’t measure up to Charli’s previous work.

Before we get into it, I do want to draw attention to the ambition of the aesthetics behind Crash, which are on-point. The album artwork is indeed, as Charli likes to say, iconic. The extracurriculars that have accompanied this era — the massive ’80s-style hair, the very fun Saturday Night Live performance, all of the music videos (especially the ride-the-gravestone clip for “Good Ones”) — feel fully realized in a way that Charli’s visuals have not always been. She’s clearly utilizing the larger promotional budget she has access to for her benefit this time around. But for an album that is supposedly meant to represent a bid at crossover stardom, or at least a victory lap for her last decade of boundary-pushing music, it sounds frustratingly minor.

Historically, Charli has created her best work under constraint. Her pair of 2017 mixtapes, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, are products of the contentious relationship she has had with her label, recorded without their permission and released outside of her standard contract. 2020’s How I’m Feeling Now was made quite publicly in only a month, fueled by the mania of early COVID isolation. Those projects ping excitedly from one idea to the next, landing on brilliance in the process. A lot their impact is tied up with the spontaneous and free-flowing circumstances in which they were created. Crash doesn’t feel nearly as propulsive, which makes me wonder if perhaps these songs have been cooking for too long.

For someone who has prided herself on reinvention, Crash just feels a bit stale. A main thrust behind the album seems to be about how Charli can reclaim and rework sounds from the past that were ahead of their time. Conceptually, I’m intrigued by the idea of an artist like Charli, who is often lauded for being so forward-thinking, using pastiche to create killer pop songs. That was at least part of the intention: “It’s become a trend within pop music these days to be very referential of previous hits, which is cool if you’re into nostalgia, less cool if you’re into pure futurism,” Charli said in a recent Rolling Stone profile. “I feel like there’s a cool middle ground that can be met, which is hopefully what I’m doing.” But the sounds mined on Crash already feel dated within the perpetual nostalgia churn; the mainstream has moved on to reviving pop-punk (which, admittedly, Charli has already done on the under-appreciated Sucker). And even removed from the pop eras they’re meant to be evoking, many of the songs on Crash lack the character that Charli’s songs typically have — there are few of the live-wires and vulnerable open ends that have resulted in her most affecting moments.

The worst offenders of anonymizing Charli’s sound are the songs that pull too liberally from other sources. There are two prominent samples on the album — “Beg For You” borrows the melody and chorus from September’s 2006 club jam “Cry For You” and “Used To Know Me” uses the familiar backbeat from Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” — and there’s one song, “Good Ones,” that might as well be lifted from “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This).” These tracks don’t do much to elevate their original material, and they veer too close to karaoke. Crash has some better examples of the retro sound that Charli is going for — the sweaty, sexed-up single “Baby” is a grower, and “Yuck” is over-the-top nostalgic in a goofily winking way — but too many of these tracks simply sound like songs that already exist rather than fresh ideas.

Crash is more comfortable, and more successful, when Charli is making music in the vein of her 2019 self-titled and her mixtapes. The album begins on a promising note with its title track, a groovy layer-cake of processed vocals that is a rubbernecker’s delight: “I’m about to crash into the water, gonna take you with me/ I’m high voltage, self-destructive, end it all so legendary.” And once you get past the early batch of singles, Crash opens up into a wider variety of sounds that has some definite highlights: There’s the darkly romantic, electrifying “Lightning,” the shattered-glass pulse of “Move Me.” Last-minute single “Every Rule” sounds like a spiritual sequel to Charli‘s “Official,” a rubbery robotic slideshow of a disintegrating relationship. These are all enjoyable, but it’s stuff we’ve heard from Charli before, and in better iterations.

I don’t want Charli to be stuck making hyperpop-adjacent music for the rest of her life — and it’s clear from True Romance and the rest of her earlier material that she doesn’t have to be — but Crash is the first Charli album in a long while that feels inessential and doesn’t live up to her high standard. Charli has insisted that this is her most cohesive album, but it actually sounds like her most scattered, stuck between the pull of the past and the promise of the future. That has the effect of diluting both her retro pastiche and the futuristic material that has become her signature sound. Maybe that’s the whole point of Crash — a conceptual project and cautionary tale about what happens when you let commerce become too much a part of your art. But I wish she could have found a way to do that and also make an album that was less underwhelming.

CRASH is out 3/18 via Atlantic/Asylum.

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