It’s been flat-out exhilarating to watch Charli XCX elude conventional stardom for so many years. Though she’s thrown some tracks into the commercial vortex, she’s been too much of a free-thinking weirdo to let her boundless creativity get crushed out by mainstream expectations. Instead, she found a way to feed the industry massive, ultra-hooky bangers by writing on other artists’ tracks — Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” Selena Gomez’s “Same Old Love” — and helping them cannonball onto the charts. When it came to her own work, her sound fully clicked when she began spiraling out to the outer limits of the underground and avant-pop worlds, picking up bionic hyperpop influences and letting her brilliant, bizarro impulses take over. She’s a self-proclaimed “anti-pop star,” always outrunning the pop flywheel.
That is, until now. Crash, her fifth and final on Atlantic Records, is the glitziest, most maximalist version of Charli ever. But to be clear, she’s not exactly surrendering to the shiny allure of commercial fame. Charli has said she’s “very into making ultimate pop music” and that she’s been wanting her “main pop-girl moment,” but she’s also forever an art-school kid. She conceived Crash as a kind of concept record that interrogates the idea of an artist selling her soul to churn out mega-bops on a major label. She’s incorporated macabre, blood-splattered visuals in the album rollout, building a villainous pop princess who dances on the grave of the old Charli we knew. As a strategy, it’s masterfully smart: She gets to poke fun at the artificialities of celebrity and the big, bad label machine in an extremely Charli way, while firing out songs with the potential to become gargantuan hits.
This all makes Crash unabashed pop glitter — with a wink. Charli starts with the album’s title track, a song that embraces chaos and acknowledges that if she’s going to take a giant gamble on this project, why not go out in a blaze of glory? “I’m high-voltage, self-destructive, end it all so legendary,” she sings over blindingly bright production. She bedazzles the rest of the music with gleeful touches that feel like they were plucked from synth-filled dancefloors, disco roller rinks, and Eighties throwback bashes. Some of it, unfortunately, can be a little forgettable — the single “Baby” came out earlier this month and already feels like it’s faded into the fray. But Crash works when it’s looked at as Charli seizing a pop conversation that’s already been happening, and it’s particularly exciting when she enlists rebel-minded artists like Caroline Polachek and Christine and the Queens for the soaring “New Shapes” and Rina Sawayama for the “Beg For You.” If she’s crashing the mainstream party, she’s taking all the left-of-center girlies with her.
Not everyone has been into the new approach. People have called bullshit on the whole commercial-subversion concept, seeing it instead as an excuse for her to make “generic radio garbage.” Charli actually took a social media break after the backlash intensified, but not before reveling in her ability to stir things up. “People be mad that i’m testing the major label system an art piece whilst still making bops … and honestly i love it,” she tweeted.
It’s true that some of Charli’s best songs have always been more electro-avant, which was part of the draw of How I’m Feeling Now, the 2020 adrenaline-packed album that felt like a bunch of tiny thunderbolts stuffed in a jewelry box. There are a few jolts of that on Crash, like “Lightning” and the spangled ballad “Every Rule,” but not a lot, to the chagrin of listeners who love that side of Charli. At the same time, it’s worth wondering how much longer she could have kept the sound going. Charli had already predicted the hyperpop wave years ago, teaming up with people like the late visionary Sophie before more of the world discovered her. Now that hyperpop is flickering around in the mainstream, Charli moving onto something else actually makes a lot of sense. Her pop swing feels even ballsier because it recalls the some of the energy from her 2014 studio debut, Sucker, released after she emerged as a teen prodigy on MySpace. For years, it seemed like she’d left a lot of that behind, making this one of the least expected directions she could have taken.
Plus, it’s fun. The most auteur-y auteurs, like Arca, FKA Twigs, and Rosalia, have gone deeper into mainstream sound pools over the last couple of years, so Charli’s not exactly alone — she’s just more direct. She’s been honest about how much she adores the boldness of pop, and she’s been so good at crafting sticky, soaring blockbusters anyway. Here, she’s simply storming the gates head on.