You sense that Charli XCX approaches the final milestone in her five album record deal with a degree of relief. Since releasing her major label debut ‘True Romance’ back in 2013, the artist has become increasingly vocal about the struggle to juggle her creative impulses with garnering commercial heft – ”it only gets worse” she once tweeted in a sarcasm-laced piece of advice addressed to wide-eyed new artists. Last year, the star revealed that she stormed out of a meeting after her label suggested weekly dog snaps might help her to appear more “real”.
So far, signs suggest that Charli XCX has the right idea by doing things her own way instead. Some of her most intriguing and experimental releases to date have arisen from outwitting the system she felt trapped within. Packed with bright, garish sounds and bending recognisable pop tropes into strange new shapes alongside producers such as PC Music’s A.G Cook, Easyfun and the late SOPHIE, both ‘Pop 2’ and ‘Number 1 Angel’ were released as free mixtapes to circumvent the slower process of releasing albums through conventional label routes. When it came to sharing a release date for ‘Crash’, meanwhile, the pop polymath engraved it onto a gravestone bearing her own name.
Still, if ‘Crash’ is a final blaze of glory for Charli XCX as we know her, there’s nothing funereal about it. Though there are certainly allusions to its wider surroundings in places – take ’New Shapes’’ peppy central hook: “What you want, I ain’t got it” – it strikes a celebratory tone. On closer ‘Twice’, robotic pings of xylophone turn over and over as Charli stares death square in the eyes. “Don’t think twice, don’t think about,” she sings, vowing to cram in as much as possible. As well as a carpe-diem pop bop, it feels like a reflection of the more instinctive art that its creator would love to be making in the future.
While opener ‘Crash’ is the freeze-frame moment before plunging into bitterly cold torrents of water, there’s beauty in the breakdown. “I’m high-voltage, self-destructive / End it all so legendary,” Charli declares atop huge thumping hard-funk drums, and screeching Prince-like guitar lines. “I’m like a flower blooming,” she rejoices on ‘Used to Know Me’, “since I left you behind.” Though it initially screens like a euphoric break-up song, there are also clear hints of creative liberation and the relief that accompanies it.
Charli XCX’s last release, 2020’s ‘How I’m Feeling Now’, was charged with a frantic anxiety; as much as glitching stand-outs like ‘Party 4 U’, ‘Anthems’ and ‘Pink Diamond’ yearned to “go real hard” they wobbled precariously atop a warped, mangled core of industrial dance-pop. It sounds worlds apart from the assured sheen of ‘Good Ones’, and the hyper-polished crispness of the Rina Sawayama-featuring ‘Beg For You’ and ‘Used to Know Me’, which sampled Swedish pop star September’s ‘Cry For You’ and New York house singer Robin S’ ‘Show Me Love’, respectively, with all the gusto of a late-night radio mash-up. By now, though, it’s clear that Charli XCX is an artist adept at occupying both worlds – mainstream pop and left-field wonkiness alike.
‘Crash’ is undoubtedly at its best when both of these elements collide in heady, slapstick fashion – resulting in a take on pop’s current disco revival, but done Charli’s way. Bearing parallels with her collaborator Christine and the Queens’ second record ‘Chris’, the disco-funk sounds Charli pulls from are tough and grinding; every sleazy sawtooth synthesiser or thumping drum machine sounds magnified and cartoonish.
While nu-disco weaving its way into contemporary pop is nothing new by now (as evident on Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’ and Kylie Minogue’s does-what-it-says-on-the-tin record ‘Disco’) the edges here are often rougher. On standout ‘Lightning’, production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ larger-than-life production on Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’ comes to mind, along with boogie pioneer Kashif. Though ‘Yuck’ heads down a more restrained road, playfulness charges her dry account of rapidly catching the ick: “Sending me flowers,” she grimaces, “just trying to get lucky.”
At times, ‘Crash’ eases off the throttle slightly – the interpolation of ‘Show Me Love’ on ‘Used to Know Me’ is infectious, if slightly too straightforward, while smouldering ballads ‘Move Me’ and ‘Every Rule’ could do with more of the skewed hints of unfamiliarity found in spades elsewhere. These are minor gripes, though, and by the time those synthesised strings whirr into life on the jagged pop-funk track ‘Baby’ they’re easy enough to overlook.
Since the beginning, we’ve seen Charli XCX trying on many guises, whether she’s referencing new-wave on ‘Sucker’ or teaming up with SOPHIE to craft an alien new interpretation of pop on her 2016 EP ‘Vroom Vroom’. One emotion that her music will never evoke is boredom, and even when her sights are trained on infiltrating mainstream pop, she’s still an artist with a knack for surprising. If ‘Crash’ really does mark the death of Charli XCX as a major label artist – what a way to go.
Release date: March 18
Release label: Asylum Records