Most recording artists — if they have the talent and luck to make it big — have to choose between music guaranteed to please the masses and music to push their genre forward. Rarely does an artist in pop find love from both radio and underground listeners, but Charli XCX has been on each side, making massive chart-topping hits and music that has built a cult-like following on the internet. While the fluidity of her career has made it iconic, her reputation has come with a unique set of challenges for an ambitious artist bent on bringing her music to more listeners.
She has recently been the darling of the hyperpop genre, an exciting yet fading pop style grounded in a Spotify playlist, but that trend has created a set of expectations for what music her new fans want to hear. With a desire to push her music forward again, she now has to impress the fans of her earlier commercial projects as well as her new fanbase, built off of her experimental pop with incredible projects like “Pop 2” and “how i’m feeling now.” Luckily, her new album “CRASH,” which was released to streaming platforms March 18, may be everything both crowds can love.
“CRASH” is a project that loudly declares Charli XCX’s, whose real name is Charlotte Aitchison, dive back into making the radio-friendly pop music that began her career, but she’s bringing along the experimental aesthetics that made her loved by her newer fans. Set up by a jarring and confrontational album cover, the ethos of the music sees Aitchison looking at fame through a macabre lens and deciding to lean in, letting her fanbase know she’s selling her soul back to stardom.
The intro and title track, “CRASH,” sets up Charli’s vision for the project as it sets up themes of instability, self-destruction and unbridled confidence. While the inspirations for centering the project around a car crash have art-house roots in films like “Crash” by David Cronenberg and others teased on her social media, the opening track calls back to the 2012 hit “I Love It” by Icona Pop & Charli XCX that had everyone singing about how they were going to crash their car into a bridge. Nearly a decade later, Charli modernized the crash with a danceable chorus that brings together a career’s worth of sonic experimentation.
While the record is her shortest yet at about 34 minutes, it possesses a lot of single power. “New Shapes,” which was a previously released track, envelops the listener in warm and blaring synths as Charli, Caroline Polachek and Christine and the Queens command the production. “Good Ones” and “Baby” stand out as excellent pre-release tracks, but “New Shapes” makes for a standout 80s inspired track in Charli’s discography. While the tendency to lean on music aesthetics from the 80s has been a played-out crutch for a lot of artists, Charli combines it with enough modern pop grooves to prove she is not just following trends, but improving them.
Part of how Charli has cultivated her own aesthetic is her tasteful use of autotune. The chorus “Constant Repeat” utilizes autotune at certain points to bring Charli’s voice to a beautiful high point, making the effect an instrument rather than simply a way for improving vocal ability. The manipulation of her voice continues on “Move Me,” a slow and sensitive track that puts reverb on her voice at the end of certain verses for an enthralling dramatic touch. Throughout the album, Charli effortlessly controls the mood with her concise songwriting and emotive vocal performances.
While the album accomplishes a lot for a commercial pop record, there are moments where the sacrifice made to achieve a less experimental sound is clear to listeners familiar with previous Charli XCX records. Some tracks towards the back end of the record — such as “Lightning” and “Yuck” — don’t stand out against the energetic impact of the first half and feel closer to generic territory. While no track stands out as terrible, “Yuck” feels far too silly to appear at the end of the record. Luckily, “Twice” ends on a high note with the compelling juxtaposition of upbeat production against darker lyrics, highlighting Charli’s desire to live in the moment when life makes her feel alone and depressed.
While the engaging risks and experimentation of her past records have been toned down, “CRASH” is an ideal project for longtime fans who want to hear sounds from every era of Charli XCX’s career coalesce into new music. The lack of features on an album aiming for commercial appeal may disappoint some listeners, but the deluxe edition — which came out Friday — offers a chance to expand the voices on the record. “CRASH” has the potential to finally help cement the British pop star as one of the most important of this decade, ideally leading to every Winston Churchill statue in London being replaced with one of Charli.