Review: Charli XCX’s ‘Crash’ Lacks Usual Experimental Character

Due to her artistic efforts to highlight the concept of “selling out,” Charli’s new album is forgettable and constrained, although it has some enjoyable highlights.

by Jack Hargrove | 3/31/22 2:00am

by Lucy Handy / The Dartmouth

After her first experiment with hyperpop in 2016 with the EP “Vroom Vroom,” Charli XCX has been on the cutting edge of new sounds in popular music. Albums like “Charli” (my favorite album of 2019) and 2020’s “How I’m Feeling Now” have been instrumental in bringing the bubblegum bass sound — pioneered by her late collaborator SOPHIE and British music label PC Music — to the mainstream. However, as she releases the final album of her record deal with Atlantic, Charli XCX is trying something new: By her own admission, she’s selling out.

The promotion for “Crash,” Charli’s latest album, featured her making many joking references to the concept of selling out. For example, she tweeted “tip for new artists: sell your soul for money and fame” during the recording of the album. Whether these references are an artistic statement, a joke or just her honest opinions are left up to interpretation. Though I believe it to be an artistic statement, the result of any of the three options remains the same: “Crash” consists entirely of 1980s-influenced dance-pop jams largely devoid of the experimental character of her previous releases. While I respect what Charli is trying to do, and I really enjoy some of the songs on “Crash,” I sadly think that this approach has led to many forgettable songs and constrains the album’s potential when compared to her other work.

The song “Beg For You,” a collaboration with another one of my favorite artists Rina Sawayama, is far and away my least favorite on the album. My expectations for this song were very high; sadly, the song disappointed me. The track heavily interpolates the 2006 song “Cry For You” by September in its chorus, using the exact same melody and lyrical structure. Sampling is a fantastic artistic tool when used well, but this track does little to separate itself from the original. The vocal performances are fine, and the song itself sounds good, but it does not sound like a Charli or a Sawayama song at all.

While “Beg For You” is the only song on “Crash” that I actively dislike, a big problem with the album is that so many of the songs are completely forgettable. They take the “sellout” theme too far and, as a result, end up bland and uninteresting — even if they may be intentionally uninteresting. Songs like “Constant Repeat,” “Move Me,” “Every Rule,” “Used to Know Me” and “Twice” are all basic synth pop or dance pop that do little to distinguish themselves from each other. “Twice” in particular is disappointing because it serves as the album’s final track but provides no climax or closure for the album. There are exceedingly few tracks on the last six Charli XCX projects that I find forgettable or uninteresting, so the fact that nearly half of this album feels this way to me is a serious negative development.

Despite these flaws, the album does have some highlights. “Yuck,” the tenth track, is the song that exemplifies the album’s concept in the best possible way and has become one of my favorite Charli XCX songs. Over a booming bass line, Charli sings about her disgust with a boyfriend who has become too clingy, admonishing him to “quit acting like a puppy” in the chorus. This type of story — with Charli portraying herself as an aloof party girl disdainful of any kind of commitment — is archetypal for a Charli XCX song, and lines like “mad when you do and sad when you don’t” masterfully show holes in the armor she’s constructed. Her repeated use of the word “yuck” in each line of the chorus, as well as the gleeful anticipation for when she inevitably rhymes it with “fuck” at the end, make this song an earworm that begs to be put on repeat. The production features a strong bassline and periodic synths, not particularly groundbreaking but complementing the song perfectly. Ultimately, this song demonstrates what the rest of the album should have been like: If, by design, the album lacks the unforgettable production of Charli’s other work, the lyrics and personality in the song must make up for it.

While not quite as good as “Yuck,” the album’s lead single “Good Ones” explores similar themes and is one of the more exciting songs on the track listing. Over a dynamic synth line, Charli laments: “I always let the good ones go.” As a driving, danceable track that is undeniably Charli, my only complaint with this song is its short run time.

The songs “Crash,” “Baby” and “Lightning” are my favorite tracks because they fully embrace the “sellout” motif while still maintaining a sense of excitement and novelty. The funky, uptempo production of “Baby” works perfectly with its blissfully beautiful hook. The unorthodox structure of “Lightning” makes it one of the more creative tracks — and the slight abrasiveness of its synths show signs of the Charli from previous albums. And as the opener, “Crash” sets the tone for the album, although the rest of the songs often fail to live up to it.

“New Shapes” is the album’s posse cut, a mainstay of Charli XCX albums. The song features both Caroline Polachek and Christine and the Queens, both of whom are frequent collaborators with Charli. One of the best qualities of Charli’s music is her effective use of collaborators, with some of the most notable examples being the song “I Got It,” on her 2017 mixtape “Pop 2” and “Shake It” on “Charli,” giving “New Shapes” big shoes to fill. Polachek’s verse is the highlight of the song, with the heavy autotune and the cadence of her voice taking the song and making it her own. Christine and Charli both do admirable jobs as well, but Polachek is easily the highlight of the song in my opinion. Despite my issues with this album, it is good to hear Charli still utilizing her collaborators to make great songs.

Overall, despite a few tracks that I really enjoy, “Crash” has proven to be the blandest and least interesting work I’ve heard from Charli since her second album “Sucker.” While the existence of the song “Yuck” alone nearly makes up for this, I find myself ultimately unsatiated by “Crash.” The “sellout” concept is interesting artistically, but it does little to create an album that does anything new or has lasting appeal. Given Charli’s mercurial nature with her music and her ability to recreate herself often, I’m optimistic for future projects; however, “Crash” has left me completely underwhelmed.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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