Music

When Pop’s Most Visionary Star Goes Commercial, No One Wins

On her new album Crash, the famously forward-thinking Charli XCX scales way too far back.

Charli with a bleeding head wound and wearing a black bikini leans over a cracked car windshield
Atlantic Records

Nearly 10 years after the release of her debut album, True Romance, Charli XCX’s record deal with Atlantic Records has come to an end. The subversive pop artist has made it clear that, with her fifth and final record under the contract, she wants to go out with a bang. In the six months leading up to Crash’s March 18 release, Charli has done the following: teased the release of lead single “Good Ones” with a series of cryptic Twitter posts endorsing selling one’s soul to the devil in order to succeed in the music industry; posed for multiple magazine photo shoots in BDSM-inspired skintight leather get-ups; and, perhaps most tellingly, revealed her album cover to be an image of her throttled onto a car window, bloodied and wearing nothing but a black bikini.

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This provocative, visceral imagery reflects Charli’s musical evolution over the years. Since the release of her critically hailed EP Vroom Vroom in 2016, the now-29-year-old has been fascinated by technology’s role in warping and distorting human desire and connection. Nowhere does Charli make this thematic interest more explicit than through her obsession with cars—sleek emblems of a future in which our bodies are both limited and liberated. Crash’s title alone is a clear callout to another work that explores the human through the mechanical: the 1996 David Cronenberg film of the same name, which depicts car crash fetishists chasing an ever-fleeting high. Charli is able to not only lean into the long-suspected record label drama for increased buzz, but pose a challenge to herself. This far into her career, is it even possible to love, and to create, in “new shapes” (to quote the album’s second single)?

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Charli has developed a reputation as a boundary-breaking pop visionary over the past decade, in large part thanks to collaborations with hyperpop producers like SOPHIE and A.G. Cook. Despite her prominent connection to that niche, though, Charli has always aspired to conventional pop stardom. A firm hand in the mainstream pop machine, she has songwriting credits on hits like “Señorita” by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello and “Same Old Love” by Selena Gomez, the latter of which includes backing vocals extracted from Charli’s own demo; additionally, she has recorded demos for songs that would go on to successfully chart, such as “Issues” by Julia Michaels, “The Middle” by Zedd and Maren Morris, and “Rare” by Selena Gomez. Her idol since childhood is not any artist canonized as revolutionizing the industry, but Britney Spears—the definition of a pop chameleon, whose often-processed voice and anonymous delivery have only prolonged her career, allowing Spears to embody numerous styles and trends. Yet Charli’s fans aren’t always on her same page. The backlash to Crash’s more traditionally pop singles crested to such a point that Charli took a step back from social media just weeks before the album’s release, in order to distance herself from the criticism. Almost as if anticipating negative fan reception to the full record, the night before Crash dropped, Charli was photographed wearing a baby tee adorned with a mission statement: “They don’t build statues of critics.

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While Charli isn’t in the wrong here, her public disdain for dissenters translates to a damning insecurity about Crash. Unlike its namesake, Crash’s extensive marketing reveals not a precursor to a transgressive triumph, but a deliberate overcompensation for an album lacking in similarly radical ideas. That this album was written during the pandemic’s rocky transitional period becomes obvious in the redundancy of the album’s subject matter—not just in its lack of party-ready songs when compared with past projects like Pop 2 and Charli, but also in how thinly spread so many of the album-dominating intimate songs become. After using the high-energy title track to drum up adrenaline for what’s to come—an introductory trick that she’s been using since Pop 2Crash gradually settles into a baseline state of self-preserving deflection.

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Within the glitched-out, heavily electronic production style of her previous projects, the emotional turmoil at the heart of many of Charli’s songs found a complementary sonic fit, externalizing intense feelings without having to articulate them. On Crash, however, such detachment reads as dishonest, given that she’s used this central tension between her emotional volatility and conflicting feelings toward commitment to fuel the pathos of several ballads dating back to her debut. The sense of callousness is only exacerbated by the album’s counterintuitive sequencing. “New Shapes,” a confessional anthem (featuring Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek) about coming to terms with the reality that its narrators won’t be able to meet someone’s needs, exudes climactic catharsis. Instead, it immediately follows the much more dispassionate “Crash,” throwing the listener and record off-balance. Even worse, one of the few moments of emotional reprieve, “Every Rule,” has its impact nullified by being immediately followed by “Yuck.” Easily the album’s foremost dud, the song openly antagonizes a potential partner for showing Charli the slightest gesture of affection. She only wants to connect through empty sex, she says, a defensive return to her old, immature ways.

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By far Crash’s most disappointing element, however, is its lack of compositional imagination. This especially stings following the creative stride Charli had found with her last few projects, like 2019’s masterfully varied Charli. This isn’t to say that Crash lacks any distinctive musical highlights: The popping sequencer lines of “Good Ones” allow Charli to brood with enough of a groove behind her to aptly convey the song’s melodrama in a brisk two-and-a-half minutes. Despite its played-out, retro synth lines, “New Shapes” uses a kinetic percussion fill to create a bigger scope than that of any following song. Presumably to prevent limiting herself to any single artistic expectation, Crash sees Charli pivoting to her blandest palette. The remainder of the album’s track list defaults to blinkering keyboard melodies and underweight digitized rhythm sections. The songs lay this lack of innovation bare, often falling short of three minutes and hardly suggesting they could go on any longer.

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Worse still, when Charli does attempt to deviate from the album’s formula, she does so by dallying with styles that don’t play to her strengths. In keeping with trends, “Baby” flirts with an admittedly robust disco sound, but it misses that the genre’s core was sultry, melodious longing; instead, the song’s final hook is a stuttering power play that undercuts what comes before it. Even more baffling, “Lightning,” a riff on Janet Jackson, feels cluttered in comparison to its inspiration’s tightness. Charli crowds the track’s hook with wavering vocals, an underwhelming auto-tune breakdown, and, strangest of all, a Spanish guitar part to transition between the two.

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Listening to Crash ultimately isn’t a bad experience or even a mediocre one, however—Charli has always had a gift for writing sticky hooks. But the record lacks depth or intrigue, a disappointing realignment from someone whose vision for pop music was so huge it nearly caused songs to burst at their seams. What we’re left with is an album deserving of a descriptor that no prior Charli XCX album has ever warranted: boring.

Though Charli described herself as an “iconic figure in the arts” in promotion of the album, what Crash most resembles in its comparative lack of ambition is a label concession. Charli sounds like she’s desperately attempting to divvy up a small amount of inspiration into just enough tracks to shove herself out of her contract. It makes for a disappointing end to the ever-shifting guidance that characterized her artistic saga at Atlantic. Sadly, what’s most reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s Crash here is not any shrewd insight into the nature of modern intimacy, but the prevailing theme that its central character is slipping toward the point of no return, failing to find any meaning after pushing the boundaries of their life to the breaking point. One can only hope that this is a mere moment of transition for Charli XCX, but as far as her current standing goes, she needn’t worry about her critics outshining her—no one will be building statues for this album, either.

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