Occupies a completely different space with joyous music that flits between normativity and hall-of-mirrors-style subversion
One wonders what George Michael’s reaction would have been if, in 1993, he had found out he could release Listen Without Prejudice Vol 2 and anything else he chose, as long as it was officially labelled a ‘mixtape’. Lots of Charli XCX’s most celebrated music in the past few years has been outside the remit of her five-album contract with Atlantic Records, which is coming to an end with the release of this Ballardian record, and it is a kind of victory for her that pop music during this time period has become decidedly weirder. As such, Crash features a mostly conventional pop ensemble of writers and producers (Rami, Ian Kirkpatrick, Oscar Holter) but mostly avoids sounding like a compromise.
Constant Repeat is a perfect example, with twinkling synth ostinati complementing a vintage Charli performance over booming bass. Her performance is a tug-of-war between DSP and delivery as she proclaims “I scared you away, you missed the chance of a lifetime”, and her toplines are the kind of uncanny perfection that would have pride of place on any PC Music record. Similarly, Baby might sound like a Dua Lipa track at first glance but has one foot planted in the surreal with its “I’ma fuck you up” coda and almost parodic rendition of synth-funk.
Beg For You is more firmly mainstream, with its UKG-themed Digital Farm Animals production earning it heavy rotation on Radio 1, but it’s good fun and besides, weren’t the sped-up R&B vocals of garage remixes the original hyperpop in a way? Used To Know Me also falls into this category with a ballsy lift of Robin S.’ Show Me Love (the Stonebridge remix, naturally) and a suitably anthemic hook about getting over an old flame. Yuck is perhaps the album’s biggest misstep, as it aims for a particular type of Gen Z moody aesthetic but doesn’t sound authentic to Charli at all.
One of the more mellow tracks is Every Rule, which concerns a morally fraught affair (“We know that it’s wrong but it feels real fun / sneaking around, falling deep in love / but sometimes I get scared, ‘cause I know it’s unfair / I’m hurting someone else instead”). The instrumentation starts off surprisingly basic before various lush synths and effects creep in, as if a door is opened to OPN’s blissful soundworld halfway through the second verse, and the tender tone makes for a refreshing stopgap in a record that’s otherwise quite uptempo and full-on.
New Shapes, with Christine And The Queens and Caroline Polachek, takes an episodic approach to song structure with each singer playing to their strengths, featuring some especially arresting high notes from Caroline, while Lightning is the album’s real centrepiece. Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown at it – a washed-out ambient intro, vocoded harmonies, a bustling ’80s-inspired groove, daringly tacky orchestra hits, cascading Spanish guitar, squealing pitch-bent vocal chops – and somehow it all works in conjunction with effortlessly catchy songwriting.
The Charli XCX of 2019’s self-titled record was trapped between two pillars. Pop-by-numbers about wanting to go back to 1999 and blaming it on your love, versus avant-garde beats and indulgent posse cuts, it was hard to see how a coherent vision could be realised. Crash, while not a perfect record and not entirely free from external pressures, sees the singer in a completely different space, making joyous music that flits between normativity and hall-of-mirrors-style subversion in a manner reminiscent of The Weeknd’s Dawn FM. If this is any indication of what’s to come in a post-Atlantic world, then we’re in for a real treat.