Even when Charli XCX, an artist typically regarded as one of the most forward-thinking pop stars on the planet, half-jokingly refers to her latest album as her “sellout era,” you can still expect a couple subversive twists alongside the catchy, stadium-ready hooks that she’s so experienced at crafting. While the British alt-pop sensation’s latest certainly doesn’t have the same hyperpop-leaning tunes to tide over her cult following, Charli’s latest sees her deconstructing the idea of the mainstream major-label pop star, rather than the sounds they typically make. Charli intentionally handed over writing duties on her lead single to Swedish superproducer Oscar Holter and starred in product placement-heavy music videos, but has sent Tweets explaining that it’s all part of an attempt to let the mainstream slowly warm up to something a little outside the norm, bringing some fellow pop visionaries like Rina Sawayama and Caroline Polachek along for the ride. The resulting music feels like Charli genuinely trying her best to appeal to a general audience while throwing in a couple nods to her more colourful past in the form of chopped-up vocals and robotic harmonies. In any case, when someone is this good at pop music, choosing sides is unnecessary.
As is tradition, Charli kicks off her album with a track that’s a sonic overload in all the best possible ways. “Crash” might hook listeners in with its trendy chords and poppy guitar riff, but one of her most innovative and genre-bending combinations yet lurks behind the surface. Blending one of her typically uptempo bubblegum choruses and twinkling synth lines with a bassline and shuffling rhythms lifted straight from a classic new jack swing track, there’s certainly a lot going on and it lines up shockingly well as Charli invites listeners into her vehicle on a direct crash course. A guitar solo at the end joins the chaos to top it all off. The out-there opener leads into two of the project’s most palatable singles, but she still manages to throw in a couple winking nods to the fans behind the supremely catchy choruses on display. “New Shapes” invites the aforementioned Polachek and Christine and the Queens along for the ride for a soulful synthpop banger, Charli confidently reaching into a lower vocal register as she questions her aversion to commitment. The fizzy synths in the back and heavy percussion give it a bit of that manic and experimental hyperpop edge, but at its core, this is just a fantastic pop song. The 80s-inspired “Good Ones” might be the trendiest track on the whole project, even down to its criminally brief runtime, but Charli still knocks the memorable chorus out of the park.
“Constant Repeat” keeps up the pretty flawless blending of Charli’s more mainstream songwriting instincts and her predisposition for something a little out of the norm. There’s something intangible about her vocals that makes her a perfect choice for the genre that really shows up here – she’s reminiscent of fellow underground pop darling Carly Rae Jepsen in her ability to deliver inflections that make her come across as a powerhouse in control and a vulnerable, heartbroken girl looking for love at the same time. The track has one of the more restrained, safe pop choruses here, but it’s bolstered by rumbling bass and a glitchy beat full of robotic, malfunctioning vocal samples – the bridge full of impressive vocal flips is another highlight. This leads into “Beg for You,” which many fans curiously reacted overwhelmingly negatively to because it wasn’t as experimental as they had hoped for. While it’s essentially an interpolation of September’s campy classic “Cry for You,” Charli is still a master of wringing all the emotion out of the old track, throwing Rina Sawayama on top and proving she can nail the classic Europop sound as well. It’s simply a lot of fun, especially as she begins spinning out of control as the mix gets a little more intense near the end. “Move Me,” on the other hand, feels like the only track that didn’t perfectly achieve what it was going for. With a couple awkward breaks and transitions between faster and slower moments, the track feels like it doesn’t quite know if it wants to be album’s more contemplative moment or another uptempo banger with a great chorus.
Charli’s success with just about every pop sound continues as the album extends into its second half. The nightclub-prowl anthem “Baby” feels like it could be a leftover Janet Jackson song with its syncopated guitar riffs and breathlessly danceable attitude, while “Every Rule” almost feels like Charli’s version of a Disney Channel Original Movie-style teen romance song, keeping the peppy bubblegum pop delivery but translating it into an emotional, downtempo slow burn. Charli proves that she doesn’t have to be off-the-wall to be effective – she has enough emotional conviction without saying a single word in the chorus made up of “aaaahs.” Sandwiched between these two is “Lightning,” which might just be the best song of the year so far. As soon as the strangely beautiful robotic harmonies hit, the track is plunged into a constantly shifting world of instruments and new ear-grabbing sounds popping in and out of the mix to support yet another knockout chorus. Spanish guitars, speedy orchestral moments, old-school hip-hop percussion and Charli clearly having fun messing around with the vocal modulations all contribute to her delightfully futuristic vision.
The track “Yuck” is another one that’s certainly a little less than original as far as Charli’s catalogue is concerned, essentially following the Doja Cat “Say So” formula, but once again she elevates it by a couple levels based on her delivery alone. Charli has never sounded so romantic and in love, but the song’s premise is her complete aversion to feeling this way, criticizing herself for allowing herself to get so lovey-dovey. The project winds down with “Used To Know Me,” which takes a highly recognizable sample from Robin S.’ “Show Me Love” and creatively flips it into a new early-2000s dance-pop style track, and “Twice,” which finally sees Charli settle down on a new message of being happy with what she has, living in the moment, and not overthinking as she dedicates the track to her longtime partner.
CRASH is the sound of an experienced pop historian appreciating her genre’s past before taking a full-fledged leap into its future. As this is the last album on her major-label contract, there’s no telling what kind of sonic insanity we might receive from her next. As it stands, this is a pretty fun way to close a chapter.
Favourite Tracks: Lightning, New Shapes, Yuck, Crash, Baby
Least Favourite Track: Move Me