Charli XCX’s new album “Crash” was released this week on March 18th. It’s an electro-pop confection designed to bridge the gap between Charli’s experimental side and music that could actually be played on the radio. In this regard, it is probably a failure.
Charli had a few stabs at mainstream success early in her career: She scored a feature on Iggy Azalea’s number one hit “Fancy,” had her song “Boom Clap” featured in “The Fault in Our Stars” and sang the lead on Icona Pop. “I love it.” But in 2015, she moved away from the pop mainstream when she released “Vroom Vroom”, an “avant-pop” record produced by experimental electronic music producer SOPHIE. Instead of being a B-list pop star celebrity, Charli became an A-list indie pop star and has released a host of EPs and experimental albums since. A running joke is that her music now sounds like pots and pans clashing, but while pots and pans won’t get on the radio, she certainly had a niche.
Then, last year, she released “Good Ones.” “Good Ones,” a pop single about being bad in dating, was the most typical song she had released in years. With her came the tweet “rip hyperpop”, hailing the end of the experimental genre in which she had previously been grouped and of which she was, in many ways, the biggest star.
Now, four attempts at “mainstream” pop singles later, comes “Crash.” The album‘s rollout and simultaneous transition to more typical pop wasn’t without its hitches. At one point, after a lukewarm response from fans to her single “Beg for you,” she released a statement asking people to stream it anyway so she could write more edgy pop later. She also called a fan “c*nt” for finding the singles mediocre. The album is there, but it was not an easy journey.
Still, for all the histrionics that come with the release of the album, it’s a pretty good electro-pop album that surprisingly (given Charli’s screams about creating something mainstream) doesn’t sound like at all to the general public today.
The biggest pop stars of recent years have been Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, Lil Nas X and Ariana Grande. Charli doesn’t look like any of these people. Of her mainstream sound, she comes closest to the ever-popular ’80s inspiration that’s also featured on recent albums by The Weeknd and Dua Lipa. But, while they musically err on the side of Michael Jackson and Madonna, Charli sounds like Stacey Q, Rick James and Janet Jackson. It’s easier to listen to than its “pots and pans” content, but sanding the edges of its sound hasn’t made Charli any more current.
But while she’s still unlikely to achieve any real radio success from the album, it hasn’t proven to be detrimental to the music. The title track begins the album and is most reminiscent of its hyper-pop past in its use of vocal splices, but now they are fused with a new jack swing influence that indicates Charli’s broader approach to reference.
New jack swing was a trend that started in the late 80s, combining R&B with rap and dance music for an energetic, excited and manic style of music. Despite our obsession with cultural music for the 80s, new jack swing didn’t really make a revival in the 2010-20s. Yet Charli, ever the intellectual of pop music, can take the manic quality of new jack swing and combine it with the equally manic nature of his electronic pop. It works well, allowing current Charli to combine her predisposition for energetic, giddy music with a previously mainstream musical tradition.
The album’s loudest song is its eighth track, “Lightning.” Charli has long shown an ease with shifting pop centerpieces (“Track 10”, anyone?), but here she refrains from the catchy jingle that defined her previous entries in this category. Instead, “Lightning” commands attention with its large number of hooks and constant left turns. Its slow start belies a bright but moody electronic love song that seems to miss love more than anything else.
“Lightning” works in part because it contrasts the album’s biggest flaw: the songs are just too short, and that’s the fault of its mainstream pop ambitions. “Lightning” is the only song longer than three and a half minutes, and thank goodness for that because the tonal shifts the song causes require more time. For some reason, the mainstream trend of short songs is the only one Charli has actually followed. Spotify’s economic strategy has made short songs more profitable because it means more of them can be played, and this has led to situations like Ariana Grande’s “Positions” having no songs. more than four minutes.
It’s a shame Charli followed suit. Many of his songs here could use a bit of a break – they’re all so full of songwriting “moments” that it can be hard to catch your breath, and that hurts the album as a whole. Listening to “Crash” cover to cover means a strong song is likely to be missed as those short, intense bursts of energy blend together. “Move Me” and “Every Rule” in particular are lost in the shuffle of the album’s near-constant progress.
The question of the short song is particularly difficult to grasp because of its purely commercial nature. Charlie knows better than that. For all her intelligence as a writer, she is apparently unable to identify her audience. None of her singles from this album charted in the United States, but she creates music like she expects to break into the top 10. The album’s strongest moments are when she drop the mainstream. Hyper pop may be dead, but Charli XCX, pop author, needs to live.