Charli XCX: Crash (Atlantic) - review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, March 4th, 2024  

Charli XCX

Crash

Atlantic

Mar 25, 2022 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


If art’s ultimate purpose is to either generate empathy between estranged demographics or provide a reflection of the culture from which it springs, then English singer/songwriter Charlotte Emma Aitchison’s intriguing fifth studio album—the final in her contract with Atlantic—undoubtedly accomplishes the latter. Part bold artistic statement, part satire of indulgence and celebrity in the age of hyperrealism, the aptly-titled Crash has not only become an object of critical intrigue but also succeeded in polarizing listeners prior to being released. Better known by her stage name Charli XCX, Aitchison leaves her intentions on full display in the album’s title and artwork, as well as her reference to director David Cronenberg’s 1983-released body horror classic Videodrome. The development of the album’s protagonist—this “soulless” and “demonic” Faustian avatar, a sleek chromium machine in the guise of a human being—implies a sense of wit and humor bearing significant cultural implications.

The urgency of Crash’s chilly demeanor and acclimated appeal render it disturbingly identifiable in its hedonistic ’80s- and ’90s-inspired synth-pop removal, indicating the quality of a promising “generational” release. The intersection of violence, sexuality, and technology explored within the album’s cover art calls to mind influential science fiction writer and cultural prophet J.G. Ballard’s contentious 1973-released novel Crash—and, by extension, Cronenberg’s 1996-released film adaptation. Deft studies of humanity’s psychological and physical transformation alongside technological and cultural advancement, both novel and film reveal a world “beginning to flower into wounds.” This merging of flesh and blood with steel and plastic is fully embodied within the album’s production, which (mirroring Ballard’s prose) applies a highly technical and intricately calculated approach, pristine melodies scrubbed of any discernible warmth or familiarity, courtesy of Charli XCX and her team.

A cornucopia of both high- and low-brow cultural sensibilities, Crash’s range of professed musical influences runs the gamut, from Serge Gainsbourg (by whom much of the album’s compositional sophistication must have been inspired) to Backstreet Boys and Black-Eyed Peas. Across the album’s 12 tracks, Charli XCX—at heart an avant-pop experimentalist—and her collaborators explore a multitude of styles and subgenres, including, but not limited to, synthwave, hard funk, swingbeat, house, bubblegum, and “post-internet” glitch. “I’m interested in the concept of selling out,” the singer once remarked. Such provocation on her part makes sense, as she has been the focus of pointed accusations of doing just that. Charli XCX has not sold out, however, with Crash’s syrupy “mainstream” pop sensibilities being a mere smokescreen, masking the album’s deeply satirical leanings. She has chosen instead to consider Ballard’s assertion that “novelists [or, in this case, musicians] should be like scientists, dissecting the cadaver.” Here, Charli XCX plays the role of journalistic observer, an active archivist compiling popular culture’s scattered relics, junk, and esoterica, reinterpreting the present and future through their tangled associations with the past, and cataloging the history of modern pop and its seemingly infinite number of offshoots into a full report.

Opening the album on a note of crisply funky precision, Crash’s title track serves as a concise introduction to Charli XCX’s brave new world, in which automotive imagery is intermingled with her own anatomy, the singer declaring, “Feel myself/I’m lookin’ way better than ever.” Instantly captivating, “Crash” represents what is not, in fact, the artistic stumble some initially predicted, but the singer’s symbolic taking back of her power from a ravenous popular culture machine, serving to first mock and then dissolve the creative claustrophobia so often foisted upon young artists such as herself. She navigates the album’s icy soundscapes with colliding senses of mortal consciousness and glamorous popstar indifference, bearing some resemblance to David Bowie’s own notorious “Thin White Duke” persona: a “hollow” character to whom the late icon once referred as a “would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion at all but who spouted a lot of neo-romance.” Instead of following Bowie’s “plastic soul” blueprint, however, Charli XCX embraces a far more digitized sound, her sleek detachment as tailored to the current decade as the Duke’s was to his fabled 1970’s.

Subsequently, Christine and the Queens/Caroline Polachek collaboration “New Shapes” revisits Videodrome’s concept of a prevailing “new flesh.” Tellingly, the track’s opening lines—delivered upon a rush of low synth-washed vocals—“What you want/I ain’t got it” signify the artist’s removal, the triumph of persona over person, and the ultimate sense of transcendence embodied throughout Crash. “Constant Repeat,” yet another flawless pop composition and standout track, sees Charli XCX exploring romantic fixation through stylized regret. “Do you realize/I could’ve been the one to change your life?” she asks. “You coulda had a bad girl by your side.” The track’s impeccable structure offers a reminder to the listener that neither it nor the album are products of impulsivity, and that Charli XCX and her collaborators are meticulous composers, producers, and performers in complete control of their art form.

Eurodance anthem “Beg for You”—the album’s primary cut—is one of the tightest pop numbers yet to emerge from the decade. Here, we find Charli XCX and guest artist Rina Sawayama drifting through a tantalizingly rich fantasy of electric melancholia, awash in fuchsia currents of youthful desperation. “Put your lips on my lips,” plead its lyrics. “I’ll remember your kiss on the nights when I miss you.” The track’s irresistible interlayered hooks are accentuated by its sampling of Milk Inc.’s “Don’t Cry” and September’s “Cry for You,” evoking an effective share of quasi-ironic lovelorn nostalgia. “Beg for You’s” exhilarating Nick Harwood-directed music video, in which the two featured artists lead a small desert cult to mass suicide, appears to remark upon the chic pageantry essential to both religion and politics, its popping color-coded imagery providing a visual companion to producer Digital Farm Animals’ luscious backdrop. Crash’s hyper-chill production value, especially notable on tracks such as “Lightning” and “Yuck,” provides a bold layer of atmosphere, veering the album from the course we believed Charli XCX to have charted on 2020’s How I’m Feeling Now. That said, Crash does contain several inconsistencies. “Good Ones” and “Used to Know Me,” to which the album’s lagging moments are predominantly confined, are by no means “bad” tracks, but their respective presences tend to lack the punch and accessibility of the album’s peaks.

A central element of Ballard’s novel is the “translation of wounds through the violence of aircraft and automobile crashes,” and the conversation around wounds both visible and psychic plays a key role on Charli XCX’s album—wounds inflicted upon her by failed romances, various quarter-life crises, and, most recently, some critics and fans via their initially hostile reactions to the album’s singles. Pools of tender introspection glisten brightly on highlights “Every Rule” and “Twice,” both of which showcase the flickering ghost extant within the protagonist’s machine. The former, enshrouded in the minty dream-mist of a starlit retrofuturistic paradise of “cigarettes up on the balcony/Wrapped in nothing but sheets,” conjures enough polished beauty to humanize its own sentiment, while still maintaining an air of cool distance from the listener. The clandestine pleasure of that which is born to fail permeates each lyric of “Every Rule,” Charli singing, “I’m breaking every rule for you/You’re breaking every rule for me/I’m breaking every rule for you/But I’ve gotta say/I want it this way/These moments really set me free.” Something of a companion piece to “Every Rule,” closing track “Twice”—a subtle gem—finds the singer in a particularly reflective mood, contemplating two of the big “M’s”—mortality and the moment. Here, she assures the listener that “nothing is forever/Lucky to remember,” before confessing, “All the things I love are gonna leave me/One day, you’re never gonna be there/I tell myself to take it easy/Don’t think twice about it, baby.” In a fitting conclusion, Crash’s high-speed chase ends with its neon heroine dying “happy/Thinkin’ ‘bout [her] best friends” as her wounds fester into a greater cosmic condition—inevitable to us all—before dissipating into the night.

Various suggestions that Charli XCX is “playing it safe” and “by pop’s rules” on Crash reveal a populist distrust of the genre, which predates the current generation’s critical analyses. The suspicion that pop music is inherently wicked, its creation entailing some observation of the occult or human sacrifice, is relatively common among listeners, the sentiment generally culminating in the clichéd insistence that flying too closely to the dark stars of the genre’s Luciferian zodiac is, of course, a creative death wish, by which one will surely lose one’s artistic autonomy…but is this in fact the case? As with the mythology of human demolition within or by way of the automobile—from James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, and Marc Bolan to Albert Camus, Princess Diana, and John F. Kennedy—the morbid attention garnered by pop music has captured popular imagination for generations, resembling that paid to the image of a car-crash. Of course, the purpose of Crash is far larger than that of automotive accidents, encompassing instead the effects of popular culture’s mythos and our propensity for its consumption. Could it be that Charli XCX has found a way to subversively feed us our own lurid fascinations, while simultaneously advancing her sound and exercising her lively creative energy? The likelihood of such a possibility has been indicated in various interviews she has given, and its product is captivating.

As in both Ballard and Cronenberg’s cases, however, the event of a crash is not necessarily a destructive phenomenon, but instead an act of transformation. Pop music is witnessing a similar mutation as its current flesh is exfoliated by the current cultural shift. In this spirit, Crash is rich in intelligence, its overt self-awareness and “weird art project” faux-pretension rendering it a meta-pop soundtrack staple for a post-pandemic society, whenever such a state arrives in its entirety: a neon-infused Heaven, its rolling hills and rippling waters overrun with airports and electric highways, its seraphic choruses replaced by the perpetual buzz of mass information in transit. Writer Zadie Smith—as significant to her generation as Ballard was to his—observes in her phenomenal 2014-penned foreword to Picador’s reissue of Ballard’s Crash: “In Ballard’s work there is always this mix of futuristic dread and excitement, a sweet spot where dystopia and utopia converge,” and the same can be said of Charli XCX’s Crash, its flood of ultramodern nonchalance undercut with veiled inclinations toward passion and millennial idealism. Charli XCX has crafted Crash with her own sense of sonic eloquence, rich in quality and attention to aesthetic detail. The singer’s perceptive reimagining of trends both past and present informs the listener of what many in the industry have known all along: never underestimate the intellectual weight of a popular culture education.

Will Crash persevere, eventually cementing itself as a leading generational classic? One may hope, but only time will tell, as such predictions often prove futile in the face of 21st century popular culture’s increasingly short-term memory. The album is most definitely a personal success for Charli XCX, who is herself a perpetually forward-thinking artist, fortunate enough never to have been forced into submission to mainstream orthodoxy, while still enjoying a decent amount of well-deserved mainstream appreciation. Crash, while certainly not for everyone (what is?), is Charli XCX’s own translation of wounds—ahead of its time yet delivered somehow at the appropriate moment. (www.charlixcx.com)

Author rating: 7.5/10

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Average reader rating: 5/10



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