How I’m Feeling Now album review: Charli XCX opens up

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Image belongs to Charli XCX/Asylum Records

There’s so much one could say about Charli XCX and the bases have more or less all been covered. Shes easily positioned herself as one of pop music’s vanguards over the past decade, so no one could be truly surprised when she announced she would be writing, recording, and releasing a new album whilst being in lockdown, courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic. Being the extremely online and involved artist she is, this also meant the album took on an openly collaborative process, from brainstorming lyrics and showcasing ideas on her Instagram live and commissioning artwork from visual artists across the Internet. Throughout much of the album’s process, Charli also held Zoom meetings with her fans, media, and fellow celebrities, often talking about what the creative process looked like for her and swapping anecdotes of how their lives had transformed under the circumstances. For Charli, this meant being under lockdown with her boyfriend, who helped in creating artwork and music videos for the album’s singles throughout its rollout. It also meant for Charli that the album process eventually took an emotional toll on her, and she opened up about her anxiety as well as the pressure she felt she’d put herself under in creating the album. However, she rallied on and astoundingly, we have an 11 track album called How I’m Feeling Now, a title that resonates even more given the album’s journey to completion.

The album begins with “Pink Diamond”, a bombastic opener not unlike her last album Charli’s opener “Next Level Charli” where she hypes herself and listeners up but also compares herself to a titular pink diamond, boasting her rarity. There’s a house music element in the busy, heavy, and high-octane production from Dijon, ripe for a collaboration with Azealia Banks one could only dream about. Charli follows up with “Forever” where she and frequent collaborator AG Cook work with BJ Burton to help her craft a romantic ode to her boyfriend. She expresses an earnest desire to remain in her boyfriend’s life and affirms her feelings for him will persist, even when they’re once again forced to turn the relationship into a long-distance one. Lyrically, the song also works under the circumstances of the lockdown as a relatable profession of one’s continuing feelings in the face of social distancing, though broad enough that the moody and booming ballad doesn’t feel tied to it, and sonically the track feels like a marriage of Charli’s roots in True Romance finally coming together with the more experimental sounds of Charli and Pop2. “Claws” sees Charli more directly continuing the glitchy and hip-hop-inspired sound she explored with Dylan Brady on her prior record, whom she enlists again on this track. It’s a straightforward song lyrically where she verbalizes her attraction to everything about her love interest, throwing out lines such as “I’m not shy, make you sigh, slip and slide up my thighs, juicy just like clementines” to indicate just how attracted she is. It’s a fun track that keeps the momentum of the album going but maintains her signature futuristic and experimental sound. “7 Years” sees Charli once again asserting the longevity of her feelings for her boyfriend over the past seven years and her belief that they won’t deteriorate in the future. The slight vocoder and punctuative bursts of synths in the chorus lend the song a slight similarity to The Chainsmokers’s “Closer”, though Charli’s songwriting and AG Cook’s production are more personalized and diverse respectively, as the song’s outro sees a breakdown of Charli’s vocals both in the forefront and in the background, making for a superior listen.

“Detonate” keeps a bouncy and colorful synth running throughout the song, as Charli pivots to a vulnerable confession of inner conflict within her relationship. She gives voice to her insecurities and fears, wondering if she is deserving of love and attempting to push her boyfriend away to give herself space, though she is still in love herself. It’s a relatable moment of becoming aware of the evolution within a relationship and questioning one’s self as it grows deeper. The production plays into Charli’s correlation of her conflict as a bomb ready to explode, as it builds towards a climactic finale, beeping before the stuttered vocal outro and speeding up the song’s pace as it comes to a close with a distorted noise. On “Enemy”, Charli turns the adage “keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer” on its head, toying with the idea that with her boyfriend and her growing even closer than before, he could become her greatest enemy. It’s a morbid fantasy that betrays Charli’s increasing affection for her boyfriend and BJ Burton gives her a dark and ominous rock-tinged production to play up the concept. It’s one of Charli’s more personal tracks in recent years as she admits in a spoken moment she feels she is only just learning who she is and finds the journey difficult when around other people. She more directly explores this on “I Finally Understand” where Palmistry comes aboard with a garage-influenced beat, as she reports her therapist’s findings that she needs to come to terms with her self-hatred and how she sees she has been emotionally distant from her boyfriend in the past. The breakbeat laden production also allows Charli to explore new musical ground sonically and though the structure here is more traditional, the track sounds fresh and new for her. “C2.0” is a complete reworking of her song “Click” from Charli which pitch-shifts and manipulates its predecessor’s hook into a moodier though celebratory chorus. Whereas she was stunting with her friends on the original track, Charli finds herself here missing her friends, due to not being able to see them. Though recognizably indebted to the original, AG Cook’s production here is more wistful and helps Charli completely reinvent the song’s message to fit her current feelings.

Charli has long-teased “Party 4 U” even before previous albums but reworked a new version for this album because, for her, it felt like the right time for the song. It’s a soft yet jubilant jam where she finds herself lyrically longing for a love interest, using “pink balloons” and other general party paraphernalia as motifs to express her desire to her love interest, even sampling crowd noises as it comes to a close. Within the album, it’s recontextualized due to the circumstances of the pandemic, as Charli throws a party for attendees that are unable to be present. The rolling synths and heavily Autotuned adlibs of the outro also help this song act as a reference to Charli’s work on Pop 2. Dylan Brady pairs up with Danny L Harle on the frenzied and relentless “Anthems”, giving Charli the baseline to convey her frustrations with being cooped up in her house and sonically scoring the night out Charli is unable to have. Charli co-wrote part of the song with her fans on Instagram Live, and the production packs enough energy to encompass all her fans’ frustrations with being stuck in quarantine as well. Despite the subject matter, the song doesn’t feel superficial as she quickly highlights her highly relatable feelings of uncertainty during this period, and her struggles with the monotony of isolation. She brings the momentum of the album to a climax on “Visions”, which brings the album to a climactic high, as she has come to terms with the development in her and her boyfriend’s relationship and celebrates the bright future she sees in store for them, having explored and reconciled with the difficulties they experienced in the past. The production morphs from a pulsing beat to an all-out rave to close out the album, working as a musical place of acceptance of whatever the future brings for her, no matter how uncertain it feels — a fitting metaphor for everyone during a universally troubling time.

How I’m Feeling Now feels like Charli firing on all cylinders at a personal level not seen since her debut release. The musical experimentation and evolution we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from her are still present, but Charli finds herself referencing her growth and experiences in a more open manner than usual for the pop star. The album feels like her most emotionally involved effort, despite being her mostly openly collaborative album to date. She could have easily assembled any handful of songs she made throughout the lockdown period, but it feels like an album that will be worth coming back to for years to come. The music feels fresh for her as she explores different elements of dance-pop and spotlighting new takes on her sound without it sounding divorced from her progression thus far. Thematically, while Charli has drawn upon the pandemic to inspire her lyrics, they don’t feel reliant on the situation to resonate with listeners. As a result, she and her collaborators create a cohesive body of work that breaks new ground for pop music as a whole. Trust in Charli XCX to deliver perhaps one of her best albums whilst locked up in quarantine — but who could ever really doubt her? She’s the best and most qualified person for the task.

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