By Nii-Ayi Aryeetey ’23
Last September, when pop star Charli XCX released “Good Ones,” the lead single from her new album “CRASH,” I was perplexed by her decision to write and release a relatively basic pop song. Since the mid-2010s, Charli XCX has been known for her abrasive and unique take on pop music, characterized by complex, hyperpop-influenced production techniques. I was excited to hear more of this signature style on a new album. However, upon repeated listens, I began to appreciate the decisions behind “Good Ones,” and I was less concerned that “CRASH” would be a step backwards for Charli. None of Charli’s songwriting expertise has been lost in the song; she is simply experimenting by moving away from her sugary, noisy pop sound and instead putting on a new ’80s and ’90s influenced dance-pop sheen.
The twelve tracks of “CRASH” prove that Charli XCX is a dominant force in the alternative pop scene, showcasing her ability to write magnetic, catchy songs, while channeling numerous sonic influences. The album is heavily influenced by the trends of the past 40 years of pop music, but manages to avoid sounding like a cheap pastiche of any of these eras.
“CRASH’s” title track is a high-energy introduction to the album that sets the tone by evoking the ’90s era of New Jack Swing. Charli XCX almost sounds like a poppier, more modern Janet Jackson. The song clearly establishes the “throwback” sound of the album, along with the album’s lyrical theme of self-sabotage in relationships. The chorus, “I’m about to crash into the water, gonna take you with me, I’m high voltage, self-destructive, end it all so legendary,” is a perfect representation of what is in store for the listener as they progress through the album.
The second track, a collaboration with Caroline Polachek and Christine and the Queens called “New Shapes,” introduces the ’80s elements of “CRASH.” The song demonstrates how Charli XCX and her producers write songs that both evoke ’80s and ’90s nostalgia and still sound original. The track also showcases the masterful and uncharacteristically sparse use of artist features on this album. The only other featured artist on the album is Rina Sawayama in the fifth track “Beg for You,” another highlight of the album. “Beg for You” takes advantage of UK garage and Drum and Bass revival movements pioneered by artists like PinkPantheress, featuring a skittering drum beat that wouldn’t sound out of place at a ’90s London rave.
On the sixth track of the album, “Move Me,” Charli XCX successfully experiments with R&B. Featuring a beat that would be expected from a Normani or Chloe x Halle song, the song is bass-heavy, underscoring Charli XCX’s lamentations about her “habit for destruction.” The track is effective despite being relatively far from her sugary pop comfort zone. On “Every Rule,” the ninth track of the album, Charli XCX doubles down on her foray into R&B, creating a modern-sounding ballad that impressed me with its catchy melodies and smooth production.
The seventh and eighth tracks, “Baby” and “Lightning,” respectively, are the most powerful punches of the album. “Baby” is a catchy synth-filled funk that excited me when it was released as a single and remains one of my favorites. The track is fun, fast-paced, and danceable: essentially a perfectly crafted pop song. “Lightning” is another exciting track which builds up slowly, until it explodes into an ’80s freestyle-influenced chorus, in which Charli XCX sings about her heart being “struck down like lightning” in the breakneck spirit of the freestyle genre.
The 10th track, “Yuck,” is yet another highlight. Its disco-influenced sound wouldn’t be out of place in Calvin Harris’ “Funk Wav Bounces” series. The song sports a playful, catchy chorus that immediately magnetized me upon my first listen. It holds the energy of the album and whets the appetite of the listener for the last few songs.
While I found this album to be very compelling overall, there were some elements that I thought could have been executed better. Some of the songs on the album have repetitive, single-line choruses that left me wanting more substantial songwriting. For example, the chorus of “New Shapes” consists only of the line “what you want, I ain’t got it,” repeated again and again. While this song was still one of my favorites on the album, I thought that it could have benefited from a more developed chorus. Additionally, I found the last two tracks on the album to be unremarkable, albeit certainly not bad songs. However, because the album’s runtime is only 33 minutes, I do wish these last two songs packed a stronger punch.
“CRASH” is a cohesive representation of Charli XCX’s new identity and style, strengthened by thoughtful production. But the album still features Charli XCX’s usual earworm melodies, many of which were stuck in my head even after just a single listen. “CRASH” is a successful experiment for Charli XCX in many regards: as a longtime fan of Charli XCX, I was happy that her versatility carried over into this new sound. I am excited to see how she develops her sound after this album, and what new tricks she will pick up along the way.