Charli XCX review, Crash: Pop queen’s new album is a foot-down, top-down trip

Charli XCX in artwork for her new album, ‘Crash’ (Press image)
Charli XCX in artwork for her new album, ‘Crash’ (Press image)

“I’m gonna crash, come watch me” sings Charli XCX on the title track of her fifth album, Crash. It’s the biggest, plushest, most mainstream release to date from the shy Essex music nerd turned hot LA diva. And while some fans may miss the 29-year-old’s quirkier sonic experiments, there’s no denying Charlotte Aitchison’s ability to pump out enough relentlessly solid and sexy hooks to secure herself a place at pop’s top table… or dancing on top of it.

Explaining the “high-voltage, self-destructive” poses she strikes throughout these 12, sleekly structured songs, Aitchison has said that Crash was inspired by David Cronenberg’s 1996 psychological thriller of the same name. Based on JG Ballard’s 1973 novel, the film follows characters who are sexually aroused by car accidents, exploring “a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology”. Although Ballard had little interest in music (he never owned a record player), his seductive dystopian fiction inspired many British bands of the Seventies and Eighties, as they experimented with the ways electronic music could be used to express human emotions.

Aitchison fetishises some of those early Eighties sounds in the same way Ballard’s characters fetishised vintage automobiles. “Good Ones” has a look under the hood of Eurythmics’ classic 1983 hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, tinkering with the machinery of the original synth-hook and connecting with the sadomasochism of Annie Lennox’s lyrics with her own confession: “Don’t want the kisses, unless they’re bitter/ I’m hooked on touches that leave me weaker.”

“Baby” plays with the sort of soft-pad drums, funk guitar and hard-snap syllables that drove Janet Jackson’s career. It’s a sly little song that starts out with submissively purring offers of love, and ends with a repeated promise: “Imma f*** you up”. “Lightning” sees her switching her lower vocal register up to the sweet-tease of early Madonna, as a “Holiday”-esque Spanish guitar twirls through the mix. Later “Use to Know Me” quotes from Robin S’s 1993 club anthem “Show Me Love”, written by Allen George and Fred McFarlane, who share Aitchison’s love of distorted bass lines.

Crash is a terrifically structured album, designed to get you up and shimmying off the lockdown pounds as tracks slot sleekly together. So the dreamy pulse of “Constant Repeat” slips gracefully into the harp phrases and chunky synth chords of “Beg for You”. Later, the besotted “Every Rule” trips smartly into the revolted “Yuck”, on which Aitchison rejects a “mushy” lover. “Candlelight on a starry night, you brush my hair to the side and tell me I’m pretty… YUCK! Quit acting like a puppy!”

True, Aitchison’s success here does come at the expense of some of her individuality. Her vocals, rich and varied though they may be, feel more generic. But she also sounds like a woman loving life at the wheel of these 12 luxury pop vehicles. Crash is a top-down, foot-down trip.