Album Review: “CRASH”

Charli XCX’s new studio record “CRASH” attempts to go all gas, but ends up pumping the brakes.

“CRASH” is Charli XCX’s fifth studio record and the self-proclaimed “poptastic” follow-up to her quarantine project “How I’m Feeling Now.” Her previous album was praised for its unique production and one of two projects responsible for pushing Charli to the foreground of hyperpop, a genre unique for its maximalist pop sound and exaggerated sonic themes. Since her last record, Charli XCX’s name has been more popular than ever, constantly being cited as one of the most prolific and creative minds to hit the pop scene. Her meteoric rise has further been underscored by her aesthetic choices and unique personality, constantly opting for whatever seems the most “pop.”

“CRASH” was initially announced back in November 2021. Subsequently, listeners were taunted with a March 2022 release date and an overstated rollout that would only seem to drag as the fateful day edged its way closer. A rollout that would give away five out of the twelve tracks available on a record that lasts around the same time as an average episode of a sitcom; a rollout filled with constant teasing but very little to reasonably show for it; a rollout that seemed to only spoil what could have been a heap of enjoyable surprises on the record.

“CRASH” is all hype and in an ironic twist, very little drive. It’s the traditional pop record most have come to expect and that fans have trained themselves to enjoy every time it gets re-released. The inspiration-filled Charli XCX has turned to make a project that, while incredibly cohesive, lacks any sort of unique sonic touch or creative oomph. While pop in general is often very formulaic, XCX has proved several times in the past that she possesses the creative mindset to take the genre in new and exciting directions. There is certainly a valiant attempt at making what could be considered “ultimate pop” but what that entails may not make for an enjoyable full length project. None of this pretense is to say that the project is entirely bad. However, it does fall short of becoming anything great.

“Good Ones” feels exactly like the direction XCX wanted to go in when she first began teasing the project. It has an infectious 80’s vibe, set to a fast tempo and boasts a powerful chorus that sticks in your head like glue. There are still some elements of her trademark hyperpop style but with a new traditionalized edge. On the surface, it’s a perfectly harmless track, yet it can’t help but scream ”ultimate pop.” There’s a good reason why it was the leading single off “CRASH” and it’s certainly the peak of the record. While that may seem like a good omen the tracks that immediately follow quickly extinguish any hopeful thoughts. Much of the record can’t help but feel underwhelming, almost as if it’s perpetually trying to catch up with itself but can never build enough momentum.

Formulaic isn’t even enough to describe the heap of production cliches and vocal performances on “CRASH.” It feels like there was a finite amount of creative risks XCX was allowed to take while making the record, and they were haphazardly dispersed from track to track. A great example of this is the song “Lightning,” which interpolates a few acoustic guitar licks to add some much needed sonic texture to the overall piece. It’s a fun and unique artistic choice that fleshes out the sonic palette of the track, but that’s really the only thing of note. Nothing else jumps at you or gets you excited about listening, they all just idly follow each other, slowly marching one-by-one like mechanical soldiers. “CRASH” just plays out like it’s running out gas, trying to inch itself forward, hanging onto every second. Sometimes you’ll find something interesting, but those moments are often fleeting and few and far between.

A lot of this seems ironic given that “CRASH” gets a lot of the hard parts right when it comes to making a magnum opus. In terms of visual elements, not only is XCX incredibly consistent, she’s also clearly inspired. The album cover and subsequent promotional material follow a concise visual language that feels emotive and novel. Additionally, there’s a healthy list of features on the record ranging from contemporary pop icons like Caroline Polachek and Rina Sawayama to hallmark producers like A.G. Cook. A lot of effort was also clearly put into promoting the record as well, with well-produced music videos and live appearances following in the wake of its original announcement. 

In many aspects, “CRASH” is immensely well-crafted and boasts a sum of distinct traits and shiny bells and whistles. However, these facets are often underutilized and ultimately do nothing but undermine the album itself. None of the tracks really match the clear visual language XCX has been trying to establish apart from some of the visuals set in her music videos. The features, namely Caroline Polachek, feel tacked on and don’t really get a chance to shine on their respective tracks. Charli’s romance persona, while eccentric, really adds nothing she hasn’t already produced before. 

None of this is to say that XCX should seek out to create something inherently strange or dare we say, avant garde, although recent statements certainly make it seem like that’s the direction she would like to go in. However, it’s clear there is a disconnect between the music she’s creating and the creative fervor she so proudly proclaims on social media. We already know what it looks like when she is making something genre-bending and creatively satisfying. Her 2016 EP “Vroom Vroom,”’ while unappreciated at the time, set the bar for hyperpop during that era and ushered in a new echelon of eclectic pop tracks. On the other hand, we have “CRASH,” which is nothing like that. It’s completely content with basking in the status quo, taking small steps forward then another big step back.

It’s widely known by now that most consumers do not listen to albums in full, and for those people, what they will find here are the perfect number of songs to fit on their newest “Good Vibes Only” playlist. As for the rest of the listening base, what exists in its current state is a frustratingly average experience. It is most certainly not the worst the genre has to offer in its vast sea of lookalikes and uninspired copycats. However, that very fact is what makes the experience truly frustrating. It can be so much more than it is, but chooses not to be. It’s pulled all of its punches.

If there is one thing that is commendable, it’s XCX’s unrelenting belief in herself and her musical prowess. There’s something beautiful about an artist confident in their own work and at the very least it’s reassuring to know she wont stop creating until something sticks despite the words of others.

Before “CRASH” even hit stores, XCX had already teased another project. While we wait, fans can rest easy knowing the prolific artist is likely hard at work and feeling very inspired. Let’s hope that bleeds through on this next project and we can see what more this current era of Charli XCX will lead to.

Grade: C-
Released: March 18, 2022

Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

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