Music Reviews
how i'm feeling now

Charli XCX how i'm feeling now

(Atlantic / Asylum) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

In 2020, time is meaningless. Less than three months ago, life was proceeding as normal for the majority, but now it’s impossible to remember a world where the news cycle and our every thought wasn’t dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic. And yet, when the lockdown started, many of us seemed to predict it would be the start of a personal burst of creativity and productiveness, as if extra time at home would be the catalyst to reverse a lifetime of procrastination. “Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, guys!” read the Facebook status of the most irritating person you know.

As has so often been the case, The Onion was on the money and an unprecedented worldwide catastrophe didn’t provide sufficient inspiration and clarity of mind for you to write that sci-fi trilogy you were sure Hollywood would pick up—if you could just find a few spare evenings of peace to start storyboarding. If the fruits of your labour amount to a failed sourdough starter which you feel is silently judging you despite it sitting inanimate in your fridge for the past week (you’re right, that is an oddly specific example), then that’s okay.

There are always exceptions, though; members of the human race with a restlessness and an indefatigable work ethic coursing through their veins. It’s no surprise that Charli XCX is among that number. She’s spent most of the last decade releasing albums and mixtapes at a prolific rate, collaborating with a range of innovative artists, and, in her downtime, putting together a girl-group to star in a Netflix series. Her last studio album, Charli, was only released last September, yet her impatience with these times has led her to conceive, write, record, produce, and release a new album in the space of a few weeks.

This is surely the first of a long line of albums that are in some way inspired by one or more aspect of what we’re all going through. It makes sense—art reflects the world in which we live, and in terms of global impact, this is about as big as it gets. There’s a temptation to view everything in how i’m feeling now through a new lens as a result. Is that line a comment on how society is coping? Does this song offer us hope for the future? What do we call this new genre of music that we’ll be encountering so much of? (Current front-runners: pandem-pop, corona-core or COVIDwave).

Despite so much of her music being about partying and fleeting human connections, creating an album in confinement still seems fairly on-brand for Charli XCX. From the early days of her career, she’s always been very online, and her continuation of the bedroom pop tradition was married to an aesthetic honed at the 21st Century equivalent of art school: Tumblr. Charli was the first time she’d really let the listener in and revealed more about herself, but here she regresses and keeps us at arm’s length—would that have always been her next step? There are themes of the morning after the night before and someone not being physically present, but are we reading too much into it if we suggest it’s social commentary, particularly when she’s spending lockdown living with her boyfriend?

We’ll likely never know, though it is worth noting the democratic way the creation of how i’m feeling now was approached. Fans were invited to send ideas, feedback and comments directly to Charli, and suggestions were incorporated into the final product. This crowdsourcing and close fan interaction points the way toward a new method of art creation, and ultimately says more about the current state of things that the album does. It’s also more interesting to consider, analyze and write about than the album, truth be told.

It all starts off so promisingly. Opener Pink Diamond marks her first collaboration with producer Dijon, and perfectly captures the tension and anticipation that precedes a big night out. The clipped English-accented vocals and frenetic approach to sound construction recall 2016’s Vroom Vroom EP, assisted by a co-production credit from A. G. Cook. However, the album begins to disintegrate almost immediately. What made Charli work so well was Charli’s ability to seamlessly incorporate elements of her collaborators’ worlds into her own. However, shorn of their influences and guidance—and her only limits now being the boundaries of her own imagination—Charli frequently gets it wrong, focusing more on impatiently tweaking every sound ad infinitum rather than creating something more structurally sound.

The unlikely union of sing-song melody and metallic sound effects works well on Claws, a track which could happily sit on a SOPHIE album, but by the time we’re onto the fourth track, 7 Years, it feels more like a sketch than a song, and you get the impression how i’m feeling now has already said everything it’s going to say. Much of the album is pitched somewhere between PC Music’s rule-breaking genre-bending interpretation of pop and the “Fembots have feelings too” manifesto that ran throughout Robyn’s Body Talk. Where it works best is where it favors one approach over another, but often, how i’m feeling now falls precisely in the middle and subsequently leaves behind something that sounds flimsy and unfinished.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments, though. I Finally Understand is the greatest UK garage track there never was and seems to have been beamed in from Kiss FM’s daytime playlist circa 2001. The recycling of elements of Charli’s Click for C2.0 is an interesting idea and the accelerating outro of Detonate is a welcome shock to the system, although it’s tempting to conclude that it’s evidence of Charli getting bored of her album too.

As if to shake the listener from their torpor, how i’m feeling now leaves two of its strongest cuts to the end. Penultimate track Anthems is the one song that’s undeniably inspired by being in quarantine, with its lyrics detailing an unfamiliar daily routine and desperation to have a rager. The fact that it pairs these sentiments with a sledgehammer of a dance track means that even though we can’t go out ourselves, Charli brings the party to us. Finally, Visions is fairly non-descript for the first half, but then the drop brings happy hardcore synth arpeggios and a four-to-the-floor kick drum that sounds as though it’s coming from directly behind your eyes. The song then dissolves until we’re left with panic-inducing sirens, reminding you that when the music stops, we’re still residents in a world where uncertainty reigns and no-one is quite sure whether life will ever be the same again.

As far as isolation projects go, how i’m feeling now ranks somewhere between King Lear and that jigsaw you haven’t yet got around to finishing. Admittedly, that’s a pretty sizeable range of achievement but it also feels apt. As the first big album release whose creation was nearly wholly undertaken under the cloud of COVID-19, it’s almost impossible to contextualise at this point in time. Perhaps it will become the urtext for a new wave of pop, perhaps it will usher in a more fulfilling creative relationship between artist and fan, or perhaps it will disappear without a trace and we’ll all have forgotten about it in a few weeks. From where we currently sit, it’s another intriguing entry into the Charli XCX canon, even if it does feel like more of a stopgap than anything. But hey, right now, that’s okay too.