With the release of “Vroom Vroom” in 2016, Charli XCX became the face of experimental pop. The sexy and over-the-top SOPHIE-produced track turned the singer-songwriter from an artist primarily known for her features on hits by Iggy Azealia and Icona Pop to one who would define the boundaries of popular music for years to come. “Vroom Vroom” gave way to the glitzy, bubblegum Number 1 Angel then the futuristic Pop 2. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked solo on the polarizing hyperpop-influenced work how i’m feeling now, a DIY album that pushed the limits even for Charli.
She’s always looked toward the future, which ultimately makes CRASH—a bombastic pop album emulating the sounds of the ’70s and ’80s—a disappointment. Charli is following the example of the greats on her fifth album: The influence of Madonna, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga is obvious. But with that backward gaze, she loses what made her previous work so powerful, opting to instead sound like a weaker version of what’s already been done.
The title track kicks things off well enough: a high octane, hedonistic bop laced with recklessness. It’s reminiscent of “Next Level Charli,” inviting the listener into the album, with the exhilarating promise of high speed thrills. Then comes “New Shapes,” a straightforward, frankly forgettable single about being emotionally unavailable. With featured artists Christine And The Queens and Caroline Polachek, “New Shapes” stays one note, despite the switching up of who has the mic multiple times.
Throughout CRASH, Charli teases desire and intimacy with a razor-sharp edge. In “Constant Repeat,” she seemingly wants to be the focus of someone’s attention, hoping this other person is thinking abut her nonstop. Then there’s “Yuck,” an almost too-cheeky track about being turned off by all the otherwise cute things a suitor does. Self-destruction takes the driver’s seat on CRASH, as Charli grapples with wanting pleasure without an emotionally connection. These are self-aware songs, and the subject comes up often. On “Move Me,” she admits to undermining her best interests, just as she admits to hanging onto the bad boys in “Good Ones.” A sense of danger runs through feelings of isolation and gratification, and ultimately foretell of impending disaster.
While Charli may be playing with fire thematically and visually, sonically things tend to stay safe. In the videos and press photos, she’s glammed up to the gods, dancing on her own grave, and splattered with blood. With everything so big and audacious, promising not just a new era but something so subversive, most of the songs themselves fall short of those expectations—nothing too different from any Top 40 hit. There is a bit of Charli’s typical edge present, especially on tracks like “Move Me,” but many fail to grasp true pop bliss or something truly revolutionary. Even the soft, glimmering ’70s-influenced ballad “Every Rule”—a track in a style not often utilized by the singer—fears to stray into unknown territory.
Just as songs like “Used To Know Me” and “Lightning” stay the straight and narrow when it comes to pop offerings, “Baby” comes forth with urgency. Here, Charli taps into the crucial element of any great pop album: a sense of control. It’s gripping, sensual, and high energy, akin to Spears’ “If U Seek Amy.” Charli establishes that she’s in charge, with racy synths undercutting her as she says “Imma fuck you up.” It peaks on the bad girl energy that surges throughout the album. And if being bad is the most fun a girl can have, then these moments of naughtiness are the most fun spots on CRASH.
The lasting influence of disco and ’70s pop has lead to great contemporary albums by Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware, and Carly Rae Jepsen, who flirt with these sounds well enough for it to sound effortless. CRASH is not of the same caliber, with synth characteristics and basslines plucked from other works rather than transformed into new ideas. “Good Ones” and “Beg For You” sound lifted from hit pop singles of the early ’00s, giving a sense that Charli is cosplaying as a major pop star rather than being one. Rather than testing the trappings of pop, she’s stuck in them.
Overall, CRASH’s crystal clear production and iron-clad writing has all of the force behind it to propel the album into the stratosphere. But instead of putting the pedal to the metal in pursuit of a high camp sound, it stays in the slow lane. While it reaches the same destination—a mainstream pop album—it’s much less fun this way.