The 50 best albums of 2022: No 4 – Charli XCX: Crash

The 50 best albums of 2022: No 4 – Charli XCX: Crash

‘Characteristically self-scouring’ … Charli XCX.
‘Characteristically self-scouring’ … Charli XCX. Photograph: Matthew Baker/Redferns

For the final album on her major-label contract, the contrary pop auteur decided to dance with the devil to make a nakedly commercial record – though her self-awareness still shone through

Being a top-flight pop star in 2022 seems fairly thankless, at least if you listen to most top-flight pop stars: tormented by the demand to sell themselves, renounce their privacy and see their deeply felt art reduced to memes. Dissent is spreading, with some acts making purposefully low-key work to dodge the spotlight; others balking at being “forced” on to TikTok. Count Charli XCX out of this performative protest. Since she signed to Atlantic aged 16, she’s always been vocal about the toll of existing within a major label, but the often-fractious relationship between both sides never stopped her from releasing the most gamechanging pop of the past decade nor landing hits (albeit hits she would sometimes come to resent).

It made the magnificent heel turn she played on Crash all the more surprising. On her fifth album – and last on her contract – she decided to embrace the trappings that Atlantic had to offer, “to make a major-label album in the major label way”. She temporarily sidelined the mutant vision behind Pop 2 and Vroom Vroom to work with blue-chip songwriters, nailing full choreo and grinding on her own grave in the video for lead single Good Ones. Fittingly, there are moments of ruthlessly basic pop on Crash: Beg for You interpolates September’s 2005 hit Cry for You and sounds knowingly dead behind the eyes, as any 2000s Eurodance banger should; Yuck is a cute cheerleader chant (and would-be Doja Cat hit) about recoiling from romance.

If this sounds easy, consider the one-time pop stars – Carly Rae Jepsen, Tove Lo – who have tried and failed to reclaim their former chart glory. And before you call Charli a “sellout”, know that she’d only take it as a compliment: “You say I’m turning evil / I’ll say I’m finally pure,” as she sings on the housey kiss-off Used to Know Me. Crash works because the one-time mainstream refusenik commits so wholeheartedly to the big-ticket concept. She supplements her standard prime-time radio fare with deliciously villainous anthems that strut on punishing gothic synths, flesh-slapping boogie and Cameo-worthy guitar sleaze: as she struts about how she’s going to get exactly what she wants in bed on the drily funky and madly fun Baby, her pummelling delivery on “I’ma fuck you up” brings to mind someone enthusiastically tenderising meat.

Plus Crash transcends its role-playing premise, contrasting its naked crowdpleasing aspirations with Charli’s characteristically self-scouring lyrics. Without the distortion of previous records, they pierce more strongly as she tells the story of the apparently self-inflicted end of her long-term relationship. “Think it’s in my soul / The way I run from something real,” she sings in disbelief on the sultry Move Me. Then she gasps: “No, I ain’t changing.”

These conflicts play out again and again across Crash. As with Move Me, sometimes you hear her wrestling with her essential nature, bewildered by where her feelings are leading her but following them anyway. “Don’t know what to say / One look and then you blew me away,” she sings on the crackling Lightning, sounding dazed by infatuation. Sometimes, she revels in the wreckage, like Britney Spears on her breakdown-era album Blackout: “I’m about to crash into the water / Gonna take you with me,” she sings in euphoric staccato on the eponymous opener; Every Rule (which brings to mind Spears’s Sometimes) tenderly sells the lure of infidelity. On the strident Good Ones, she all but eroticises her taste for self-sabotage: “I always let the good ones go,” she purrs.

Hearing Charli grapple with her stubbornness, nihilism and wayward gut instinct means you never lose sight of her as Crash reaches its slick highs, and not least because those animating emotions seem to be precisely the qualities that have borne the 30-year-old through the last 14 years of her career. To wit, Crash fulfilled its brief and became her most successful album to date. Despite its destructive aesthetic, you suspect this isn’t so much about Charli sacrificing herself on the altar of commercialism than finally getting to dominate a lane she’s spent years shaping from the sidelines – and the fact that she was clearly loving every minute of it.

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