Nearly a decade on from her debut mixtape, Charli XCX continues to try and walk the tightrope between pop experimentation and the mainstream. She often worked with hyperpop pioneer SOPHIE and has a tendency to pivot towards the avant-garde when commercial success seems likely. She’s practically disowned her most radio-friendly album, 2014’s ‘SUCKER’, yet has also had a hand in 21st Century megahits ‘Fancy’, ‘Senorita’ and ‘I Love It’.
‘CRASH’, the final album on her current deal, finds Charli ready to embrace regular pop music again. After the fidgety maximalism of previous record how i'm feeling now, she has remarked that CRASH indicates a new chapter where she seeks to embrace “all that the life of a pop figurehead has to offer in today’s world – celebrity, obsession and global hits.” That quote, plus a tweet where she listed a number of her influences for the record which included Boy Meets Girl and Belinda Carlisle, mean it’s difficult to know exactly how seriously Charli is taking this.
Given those namechecks and promotional material with Charli dressed as a femme fatale with big, backcombed hair, it’s no surprise the spectre of the 1980s looms large on this album. The opening title track feature big, gated drums and Baby almost replicates the electro-funk of Cameo (another act referenced by Charli in the aforementioned tweet). It can start to feel a bit dispiriting, especially from an artist who we know can be so forward-thinking when she desires. We expect more than a record where more than one track sounds like something that was left off Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘E•MO•TION’.
Yet there are still signs that Charli is a pioneer who’s ahead of her peers. Her selection of collaborators remains impeccable, with the inclusion of Christine & The Queens, Caroline Polachek and Rina Sawayama representing arguably the finest proponents of left-of-centre pop in today’s landscape. ‘New Shapes’, which features both Christine & The Queens and Caroline Polachek, may be more 80s than Molly Ringwald in a day-glo leotard, but it’s full of irresistible hooks, and the purr of “Charli, Caroline, Chris” towards the track’s end is oddly thrilling. ‘Every Rule’ is perhaps more genuine and tender than Charli’s ever been, telling the tale of her guilt at the start of a relationship, though it’s immediately undercut by the following song, ‘Yuck’, which is a throwaway romp about an over-zealous suitor.
‘CRASH’ is certainly a mixed bag, but it does demonstrate that, whatever her motivations and mindset, Charli XCX is an artist we should treasure. Even when she’s not at her best, she displays enough nous and melody to stand head and shoulders above practically all her rivals.
Words: Joe Rivers
Dig This? Dig Deeper: Rina Sawayama, Caroline Polachek, Cameo
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