Album Review: Charli XCX, ‘how i’m feeling now’

    Charli XCX is not the kind of artist you ever really know what to expect from, but how i’m feeling now certainly isn’t something anyone could’ve seen coming a year ago. An album made almost entirely during lockdown, the latest from the 27-year-old Charlotte Aitchison doesn’t stray too far from the boundary-pushing, futuristic brand of pop she’s associated herself with since her 2016 EP Vroom Vroom – from the glossy synths to the autotuned vocals and ear-drillingly abrasive production courtesy of AG Cook. But in almost every other way, the British pop star’s fourth studio record is the opposite of last year’s ambitious Charli, a defining musical statement that saw her taking the experimental stylings of her recent output and melding them with the commercial sound that put her on the map in the early 2010s.

    For one thing, where Charli was expansive and grand in scope, the title of how i’m feeling now hints at something more introspective and vulnerable, even spontaneous. But it’s the now that perhaps stands out the most – Charli’s music was never locked into the present, looking instead to the future, not as some distant point in time but as a real possibility, a world you could visit with the tap of a button (and, ideally, a DAW). But the circumstances we find ourselves in have brought the future closer to us, rendering Charli’s hyperdigital approach to pop all the more fitting. As much as the album is intended as a reflection on the current crisis, it can only be described as such to the extent that it evokes the ways in which quarantine has forced most of us to look inwards, magnifying the personal spaces that give meaning to our day-to-day lives.

    Part of the album’s value is symbolic. Besides laying claim to the first in what will sure be a long stream of ‘quarantine albums’, how i’m feeling now is also notable for utilizing a collaborative DIY approach that’s a testament to Charli’s unceasing drive to push her music forward. Though she rose to fame thanks to her appearance on Icona Pop’s chart-topping 2013 single ‘I Love It’, Aitchison first started releasing songs from her bedroom during the Myspace era of the late aughts. It’s one thing for an artist to revisit that DIY aesthetic more than a decade after their big break; it’s another thing entirely to use one’s profile to interact with fans in such a dynamic manner, inviting them to be part of the creative process by embracing the participatory culture of the internet. Despite featuring fewer guest stars than any other one of her albums (none, in fact), how i’m feeling now is a truly collaborative effort made possible only through the digital tools that now govern our reality, with Charli hosting weekly Zoom meetings, sharing updates, and organizing frequent Instagram livestreams, not to mention pulling together her usual host of co-producers.

    But while the album is unmistakably of its time, the themes that permeate its shiny exterior are no doubt timeless. More than anything, how i’m feeling now is a love letter to the people that are closest to Charli, especially her boyfriend Huck Kwong, with whom she has been staying during lockdown alongside her two managers. In that sense, the album feels like a deeper dive into the heartfelt moments that were sprinkled onto her previous work, like ‘Official’ off Charli, pulling those tender sentiments further into focus. “I like, I like, I like, I like, I like everything about you,” Charli sings on the blissful ‘claws’, while on the equally euphoric ‘forever’, she proclaims, “I’ll love you forever/ Even when we’re not together”. Charli recognizes the fact that the couple’s previously on-and-off relationship might not always be as intimate as it has been during the past few months, but the time they’ve spent together has helped her appreciate the qualities that make it worth holding onto. “Could’ve fallen, but we only grew/ So I made my house a home with you/ I’m right here and it feels brand new,” she realizes on ‘7 years’.

    At the same time, songs like ‘detonate’ and ‘enemy’ serve as an acknowledgment of how such closeness may intensify the insecurities that lie behind the surface, much like the experimental noises bubbling underneath the album’s sugary coating. While the former finds the singer confronting issues of self-trust and admitting that she might actually be closing herself off in new ways, the latter finds hope in vulnerability, recognizing that feeling those negative emotions is part of the path to self-growth and openness. During the track’s interlude, Charli includes a snippet of a voice recording taken following one of her therapy sessions, implying that this is still an ongoing process filled with uncertainty. The presence of her unfiltered voice on the track is a stark contrast to her usual delivery; but rather than standing out as an isolated instance, it acts as a reminder of the emotional rawness that Charli is allowing herself with this album as a whole.

    It’s not all about her romantic relationship, though. A sequel to Charli’s ‘Click’, ‘c2.0’ is just as out-there and abrasive in its production as its predecessor, but it’s overtaken by a sense of nostalgia as Charli sings about missing her friends (“My clique running through my mind like a rainbow”), a theme that resurfaces on the even more hard-hitting ‘anthems’, where she sings: “All my friends are invisible/ Twenty-four seven, miss ’em all”. Despite the same sentiments recurring throughout the record, it never comes off as painfully repetitive – rather, it’s an honest representation of the cyclical thought patterns and emotional highs and lows that we’ve all found ourselves trapped in during this period.

    But only Charli could write lyrics like “Wake up late, eat some cereal/ Try my best to be physical/ Lose myself in a TV show/ Staring out to oblivion” while delivering one of her most hard-hitting anthems, here assisted by PC Music’s Danny L Harle and 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady. What’s more, she bookends the record with two of the most straightforward club bangers, the sultry, sharp ‘pink diamond’ and the propulsive ‘visions’, indicating that, at the end of the day, she’s here to have fun. “I got pictures in my mind,” Charli repeats on the closer as a driving beat rises in anticipation; but the drop never arrives, instead devolving into something clunky and metallic, distant. We might not be able to party like we used to, but how i’m feeling now leaves us with the hope that this kind of unadulterated joy is just out there on the horizon, and makes sure to give us a taste of what it could be like.

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