Charli XCX’s new studio record “CRASH” tries to gas up, but ends up pumping the brakes.
“CRASH” is Charli XCX’s fifth studio album and the self-proclaimed “poptastic” sequel to her quarantine project “How I’m Feeling Now.” Her previous album was praised for its unique production and one of two projects responsible for pushing Charli to the forefront of hyperpop, a genre unique for its maximalist pop sound and over-the-top sound themes. Since her last record, Charli XCX’s name has been more popular than ever, consistently being cited as one of the most prolific and creative minds on the pop scene. Her meteoric rise was further underscored by her aesthetic choices and unique personality, constantly opting for what feels most “pop”.
“CRASH” was originally announced in November 2021. Afterward, listeners were taunted with a March 2022 release date and an over-the-top rollout that only seemed to drag on as the fateful day drew nearer. A rollout that would yield five of the twelve tracks available on a disc that lasts roughly the same time as an average episode of a sitcom; a rollout filled with constant teasing but very little to reasonably show; a rollout that only seemed to spoil what could have been a slew of good surprises on the disc.
“CRASH” is all hype and in an ironic twist, very little readership. It’s the traditional pop record that most people have come to expect and fans have trained to enjoy every time it’s re-released. The inspiration-filled Charli XCX turned to a project that, while incredibly cohesive, lacks any kind of unique sonic flair or creative punch. While pop in general is often very stereotypical, XCX has proven time and time again in the past that they have the creative mindset to take the genre in new and exciting directions. There’s certainly a valiant attempt at making what could be considered “ultimate pop,” but what that entails may not make for an enjoyable complete project. None of this is to say that the project is entirely bad. However, it doesn’t become anything big.
“Good Ones” sounds exactly like the direction XCX wanted to take when they started teasing the project. It has an infectious 80s vibe, set to a fast tempo and has a powerful chorus that sticks in your head like glue. There are still some elements of his trademark hyperpop style but with a new traditionalized edge. On the surface it’s a perfectly innocuous track, but it can’t help but scream “ultimate pop”. There’s a good reason this was the first single off “CRASH” and it’s definitely the pinnacle of the record. While this may seem like a good omen, the leads that immediately follow quickly extinguish any hopeful thoughts. Much of the record can’t help but feel underwhelmed, almost as if it’s perpetually trying to catch up but can never build enough momentum.
Formulaic isn’t even enough to describe the heap of production shots and vocal performances on “CRASH.” It feels like there was a finite amount of creative risks XCX was allowed to take while recording, and they were scattered haphazardly from track to track. A great example of this is the song “Lightning,” which interpolates a few acoustic guitar licks to add much-needed sonic texture to the whole track. It’s a fun and unique artistic choice that fleshes out the track’s sonic palette, but it’s really the only thing worth noting. Nothing else jumps out at you or gets you excited to listen, they all follow each other lazily, marching slowly one by one like mechanical soldiers. “CRASH” plays like it’s running out of gas, trying to inch it forward, clinging to every second. Sometimes you will find something interesting, but those moments are often fleeting and rare.
A lot of that seems ironic given that “CRASH” gets a lot of tough parts when it comes to making a magnum opus. In terms of visuals, not only is XCX incredibly cohesive, it’s also clearly inspired. The album cover and promotional material that follows follows a concise visual language that feels emotive and new. Plus, there’s a healthy roster of features on the record ranging from contemporary pop icons like Caroline Polachek and Rina Sawayama to marquee producers like AG Cook. A lot of effort was also clearly put into promoting the record, with well-produced music videos and live appearances following its initial announcement.
In many ways, “CRASH” is extremely well crafted and boasts a sum of distinct traits and brilliant bells and whistles. However, these facets are often underutilized and ultimately only detract from the album itself. None of the tracks really match the clear visual language that XCX tried to establish, except for some of the set visuals in their music videos. The feature films, namely Caroline Polachek, feel nailed down and don’t really get a chance to shine on their respective tracks. Charli’s romantic persona, while quirky, really doesn’t add anything she hasn’t produced before.
None of this is to say that XCX should seek to create something inherently weird or, dare we say, cutting-edge, although recent statements give the impression that this is the direction she would like to go. However, it’s clear there’s a disconnect between the music she creates and the creative fervor she so proudly proclaims on social media. We already know what it looks like when she does something of genre and creative satisfaction. His 2016 EP “Vroom Vroom”, although underappreciated at the time, set the bar for hyperpop at that time and ushered in a new echelon of eclectic pop tracks. On the other hand, we have “CRASH”, which has nothing to do with it. He is completely content to bask in the status quo, taking small steps forward and then another big step back.
It’s now well known that most consumers don’t listen to full albums, and for those people, what they’ll find here is the perfect number of songs to fit into their new “Good Vibes” playlist. Only”. As for the rest of the listening base, what exists in its current state is a frustratingly average experience. It’s certainly not the worst the genre has to offer in its vast sea of lookalikes and uninspired imitators. However, it is this very fact that makes the experience truly frustrating. He can be so much more than he is, but chooses not to be. He fired all his shots.
If there’s one thing that’s commendable, it’s XCX implacable confidence in herself and her musical prowess. There is something beautiful about an artist who is confident in her own work and at the very least it is reassuring to know that she will not stop creating until something sticks despite the words of others.
Even before “CRASH” hit stores, XCX already had teased another project. While we wait, fans can rest easy knowing that the prolific artist is working hard and feeling very inspired. Hopefully that will carry over to this next project and we can see what more this current era of Charli XCX will lead to.
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Published: March 18, 2022
Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.