By Alex Szeptycki
Charli packages existential angst and heartache in sly, self-aware pop performances that manage to deftly fuse self-conscious artificiality with earnest passion.
2020’s How I’m Feeling Now was the first album I can remember listening to that felt explicitly tied to the pandemic. On it, Charli XCX invited us to go stir crazy with her as she, like the rest of us, was cut off from what made her life worthwhile. The bumping clubs and 7 a.m. ragers vanished, replaced by lonely depression while sheltering (indefinitely) in place. The recording was jagged: sonic distortion and unpredictability made for an abrasive yet exhilarating listening experience. The artist stretched her pop sensibility, and her mental state, to the breaking point.
Crash, Charli’s latest LP, is a twofold flip of the script. The debaucherous parties are back, and she is performing for cavernous arenas instead of bedroom speakers. It’s a major change of sound: the UK pop star is shedding the experimental sound of her PC Music label in favor of fashioning simpler, bigger hits. She’s more indebted than ever to the marquee pop acts of the 2000s and early 2010s, whose music has always been a source of inspiration. Sharp musical edges have been streamlined smooth, and the call for spectacle has been heightened.
Just listen to “Crash,” the opening track. Her voice booms into existence, “I’m about to crash into the water, gonna take you with me.” Steady drums quickly join in, followed by two high-impact synth chords that take the melodic lead. The strategy here is representative: each track on the album strives for high intensity, though the songs sound huge without having to resort to adding elements that clog the mix. The tracks have all the gloss and sheen you’d expect from big-budget pop — every note seems to have been meticulously placed in the right spot.
This brightened-up sound stumbles early on. “Lost Ones” didn’t move me when it was released as a single and the album has not changed my mind. Here, the streamlined production flattens the track even more; this is a brittle, superficial soundscape. On top of that, it showcases one of Charli’s more muted vocal performances. “Constant Repeat” suffers from the same problems, though it’s bailed out by a fun bridge that manages to move the track somewhere interesting.
But aside from these glitches, the album is filled with simple and well-constructed pop music. The hooks are irresistible and the high drama of the songs dazzles. “What you want … I ain’t got it,” Charli pleads on “New Shapes,” a heartache-laced club banger. Synths explode to life in the pregnant pauses between the lines, the music effectively echoing the singer’s frustration. When collaborator Caroline Polachek chimes in on the downcast bridge, it’s to underscore the hopelessness of the relationship: “Maybe we’re meant for another dimension, babe.”
And in Charli’s world of late nights and impulsive romance, heartbreak is common. With its subtle distortion and timely cutouts, “Lightning” captures the feeling perfectly: “Heartbreak already hit me once, they say it won’t happen twice/You struck me down like lightning/My stupid heart can’t fight it.” Her voice sounds as if it’s coming up from under water, warbling through digital filters that somehow accentuate the human pain. “Move Me” hits just as hard — the music drops out before rushing back to life in spectacular fashion. This time, it’s for a toned down and regretful meditation. “I don’t even know why I pushed you away,” she sings, mourning the loss in tune with the musical drudge.
And Crash is at its best when performance and production marry. “Used to Know Me” gives us Charli rejoicing in the freedom that comes when a restricting relationship ends: “I’m like a flower blooming since I left you behind.” The hook that follows is a hypnotic, breathlessly danceable EDM drop. It feels celebratory; you can almost see the singer taking this opportunity to dance the night away.
The theme of chasing freedom permeates the album. There is a breathless, almost flighty desire to let impulse take control. The songs “Baby” and “Yuck” are presented as opposites: the former showcases Charli seducing her lover, while the latter finds her getting “the ick” because the relationship is moving too fast. “I’ma put you on the floor/leaving you wanting for more” the singer croons over the bouncy and nocturnal stylings of “Baby.” But when we get to “Yuck” two songs later, the sentiment has been reversed and Charli is over feelings of affection: “Stop sending me flowers, I’m just trying to get lucky.”
And though Charli spends much of Crash expressing her desire for personal indulgence, she acknowledges that this lifestyle has a cost. The drab trappings of “Every Rule” are complicated by the whirlwind tale of infidelity that the singer recounts. She does not defend herself. Instead, she comes to a realization: “these moments really set me free.” “Beg for You” takes off in another direction — Charli and fellow UK pop mainstay Rina Sawayama take turns dedicating themselves to a relationship, even though they realize the pain that awaits them. “Separated by a degree, hesitate and I lose you, so far out of reach,” sings Sawayama over echoing backup ad libs from her counterpart. Charli’s refrain of “Don’t make me beg for you, ’cause I’ll beg for you” underscores the irresistible pull of this emotional experience.
The finale track, “Twice,” explains Charli’s determination to be carefree. It’s a song that brings the no-brakes glamor of the album into sharp relief by considering mortality. In Apple Music’s liner notes for the album, Charli declared that the track was “about the end of the world.” She faces apocalyptic angst head on, declaring “Don’t think twice about it, baby” over a delightfully breezy instrumental. For her, the only way to ignore that feeling of impending doom is to take as much joy and excitement as she can from every moment of her life.
What makes this statement work so well is that Charli controls every aspect of her performance and persona. Her songs, her style, her public image — all of this is material for her to tinker with. Look at the album cover, where she drapes her blood-soaked and bikini-clad body over the hood of a car. She tells you everything you need to know about her intent from that one knowing look: this is loud, this is reckless, this is messy — but admit it, it is captivating.
And it is this mastery of presentation that ties Crash to the marquee pop acts of decades past. Charli proves herself to be a veteran who has become impressively fluent in the language of the art form. She packages existential angst and heartache in sly, self-aware performances that manage to deftly fuse self-conscious artificiality with earnest passion.
Alex Szeptycki is a writer from Charlottesville, VA. He recently graduated from Stanford University, majoring in American Studies with a focus in contemporary art and pop culture. He’s currently working as a freelance writer at the Arts Fuse while navigating post-grad life in a pandemic.