Charli XCX – How I'm Feeling Now

Album Reviews
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May 15, 2020
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[bubblegum bass, electropop]
8.2

It's hard to come up with an album in recent memory that is so steeped in the context of its production. Charli herself described How I'm Feeling Now as a "quarantine album," and the influence of the pandemic is clear. For many, a time of lockdown could be characterized by loneliness and anxiety. With How I'm Feeling Now, Charli XCX creates a record that acknowledges that negativity without dwelling on it. 

Continuing forward, there will be alot of music written about and influenced by this period in history. When we look back at quarantine music, How I'm Feeling Now will stand out. This album is a musical landmark, not only for being the first major release created entirely in quarantine, but as an album that perfectly encapsulates our accompanying emotional state.

Charli's music is on the cutting edge of pop. Her latest album Charli, released only 8 months ago, featured much of the ahead-of-the-curve electropop that has built the latter half of her career. While Charli had moments of bubblegum bass experimentation, How I'm Feeling Now leans hard into that style, with PC music head AG Cook providing the majority of production.  

Despite being produced in isolation and having no guest vocal features (a Charli first), Charli's latest project is deeply collaborative. She worked with several incredible producers and made sure her fans were uniquely involved. Over the seven short weeks from announcement to release, Charli was able to keep her fans a part of nearly every step of the process. She held Zoom conferences to talk about how the record was progressing and Instagram live sessions that allowed thousands of people to assist her songwriting process. Social media polls informed artwork for the various singles, and the music video for “Forever” contains clips sent in predominantly by fans.

The album opens up with "Pink Diamond'' which, to put it simply, slaps. Charli sings "I just wanna go real hard," and the track does that and then some. Dijon's production on this track is noisy and abrasive with distorted breakdowns and grinding bass. It's no gentle introduction to the project, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. 

"Forever" is the most quintessential Charli song you’ll find on How I'm Feeling Now. A layered synth backdrop (courtesy of lead producers AG Cook and BJ Burton) props up bouncing vocals that paint a picture of a resilient relationship in a time marked by disconnection. The Dylan Brady [of 100 gecs] produced "Claws'' has Brady delivering the left-field experimental production he is beloved for. The booming bass and glitchy synths contrast Charli’s sugary sweet vocal performance. And while Charli's lyrics are simple, the “I like, I like, I like, I like, I like everything about you” hook sinks its claws in deep.

As a part of quarantine, Charli’s long term boyfriend, Huck Kwong, moved in with her, and the evolving nature of their relationship is on full display in the music. Charli explores her feelings about this newfound dynamic with impressive candor, exploring both its positive and negative aspects. “7 Years” details over bright synths how hardship in their partnership has actually caused them to grow closer. However, “Enemy” has Charli expressing doubts. Intimacy can be scary, and letting someone see the vulnerable sides of you can cause uncertainty. She sings “maybe you’re my enemy now I’ve finally let you come a little close to me...it’s really clear to me...you could cut me deeper.” Even on the subtler and more simple tracks on this record, there are enough unique production quirks to keep the music interesting.

It's not uncommon for Charli to update and flip an old track for a new release. On 2019's Charli she transformed the experimental outro "Track 10" from the Pop 2 mixtape into the straightforward, Lizzo-assisted pop hit "Blame it on Your Love.” With How I'm Feeling Now, Charli similarly flips an old track but focuses on thematic reversal. She takes the Charli track "Click" and gives us a sequel entitled "C2.0.” While both are about Charli's friends, "C2.0" is more focused on longing to be with them again. The vocals are processed and layered on  “C2.0” in so many ways it’s as if Charli is trying to recreate in her music the clique she is missing. The bridge to this song contains the phrase "I miss them" repeated over and over, emphasizing the hurt she's feeling.  

The album finishes just as strong as it starts. "Anthems" is the track most explicitly about quarantine. It shows Charli's reaction to the stay-at-home orders and relates to everyone whose lives have been disrupted by the coronavirus. Though her emotions run the spectrum from bored to afraid, existential to uninspired, the main feeling on How I'm Feeling Now is longing. “Anthems” is for everyone who is devastated by the inability to go out and party, everyone who yearns for the clubs and concerts that have stopped for the foreseeable future. Charli, like many of us, wants to hang out with her friends again, to "go to parties" and "feel the heat from all the bodies".  The soaring vocals on this track are held up by another Dylan Brady instrumental with loud and drilling syths and an explosive beat.

How I’m Feeling Now concludes with "Visions" which bookends the record with another banger. Charli sings of the "pictures in [her] mind" which are her fantasies about the future. The first half of this track crescendos with swelling synths that stack higher and higher on top of each other. As the track decays into an electro rave breakdown propelled by thumping bass, we're left feeling uncertain, but optimistic that one day this will all be behind us. 

In online discussions this album has been referred to as a “time capsule” which feels like an appropriate title. A global pandemic of this magnitude is unlike anything most of us have experienced in our lifetime, and hopefully, unlike anything we will have to experience in the future. How I’m Feeling Now captures the angst and despair alongside the resilience and perseverance that has come to define people living in our unique global circumstances. It would be easy for an artist like Charli to lay low on music production and ride out quarantine, but if she is willing and able to make music like this, I’m sure glad she didn’t.

Charli XCX Depicts Life Before & After Quarantine in 'Forever ...

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