It took me a while to process this album, because a part of my brain still thinks there’s nothing to break down intellectually about pure Pop: What else can I say about a Pop album that works perfectly at giving you sonic pleasure? And then I realized, oh shit, I still have a lingering prejudice against Pop, even though I converted to the church of Pop several years ago (sister Carly Rae Jepsen was the one that gave me testimony). I’m still under the belief that there are higher music genres, which is also why always act surprised when a Pop song happens to have great lyrics. In short, I am always predisposed to be harder on Pop music than on any other genre.
It so happens that the genius of Pop is exactly that; it takes a lot of brainpower and skill to craft great songs in a genre that operates directly over our emotional lobes and pleasure receptors. It’s actually way easier to get away with a mediocre rock or R&B song; a kickass guitar solo or the flow will cover the other flaws. A 3/5 star “good” Pop song needs almost every one of its parts to work at a 4/5 star level, and even then, that’s no guarantee it will have a lasting legacy, unlike 3/5 star rock songs, because the airwaves and playlists are full to the brim with Pop mediocrity that will be forgotten over a three-month cycle.
Mediocre Pop makes great Pop an even harder task because both are working with a very similar set of resources, themes and chords. Again, it takes a lot of creative genius to rearrange those familiar resources into something that sounds distinctive. And that’s what Charli XCX’s achieves, once again, with Crash.
I call her Pop’s Head Scientist in response to an article that named her the “Pop Star of the Future” because that gives her the credit she deserves. She is the one trying the sounds that we’ll hear from Dua Lipa in a few years’ time. Perhaps that’s what has “prevented” Charli from reaching Dua Lipa’s level of popularity: She is too creative, experimental, and individual for an industry that wants Maroon 5 and Selena Gomez filler from Pop. They will certainly keep her signed on — she has a devoted audience, critical acclaim and is an accomplished hitmaker for other Pop singers — but she’s not going to receive the kind of promotional support a Taylor or an Ariana would get. But she continues to leave her imprint on the current (and future) Pop scene.
Crash is, as I mentioned before, a delight of an album, where every song carries familiar songs that are still, nevertheless, their own thing: “New Shapes” (featuring Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek) has an Arena Rock quality, but does sound like something from the 2020s instead of an 80s tribute. “Good Ones” starts from Lady Gaga’s take on Europop, but goes harder in the beat. “Yuck” has the playfulness of the 2010s Bubblegum Pop, but with on darker R&B beat. And “Beg For You” (featuring President-Elect of my heart Rina Sawayama) is also influenced by Europop and EDM, but with a melancholy beat that reminds me of some late-2000s alternative Pop.
Cleverly, almost every one of the songs has a different lead producer, a pool that includes XCX’s regular collaborator A.G. Cook, Oscar Holter and George Daniel from The 1975. It’s clearly Charli who gives this album a clear sonic cohesion, a cohesion that is actually, as the album’s title suggests, chaotic. As it has been the pattern of her sound since she broke into the scene, she brings a deal of Punk stirring over the polished structure of Pop. In true Punk fashion, the songs are only as long as they need to be, with many being under three minutes long.
My one caveat with Charli XCX is that I’m not that into her lyrics, but that’s more because I’m biased towards songs that play with language over emotional effectiveness, which is what she puts into her songwriting, perhaps the Punkiest element Charli brings to Pop. But still, the songs are dipped in very sensual portrayals of longing and loneliness, a soundtrack for our post-pandemic attempts at having a social and romantic life.
If anything, we are in a Great era for Pop music, the only problem is that it isn’t the Charlis or Polacheks that dominate the playlists and airwaves… at least not in the USA.
Crash is currently streaming everywhere and in physical formats, but like… don’t stream it on Spotify, Please?
Image sources (in order of posting): Asylum Records, Warner Music UK