Charli XCX Chronicles Quarantine Restlessness and Romance on ‘How I’m Feeling Now’
In early April, as people around the world found themselves locked down amidst the global pandemic, UK pop sensation Charli XCX met with a thousand of her fans via Zoom, and declared her ambitious plan to record a full album drawing the quarantine. Reasoning that creativity is therapeutic, she went to task and emerged less than six weeks later with “How I’m Feeling Now.” True to its title, the album is a testament to our circumstance. WIth an intimate bed shot as its cover art, the record is a DIY triumph, with all songs created either at home or through remote collaboration. AG Cook, founder of cutting edge electronic collective PC Music, reunited with Charli on production duties, continuing the wild sonic adventures of last year’s “Charli.” Tying together the tracks is the backstory of Charli and her boyfriend, who were initially in a long distance relationship, but now quarantined together, became closer in the process. The record chronicles this experience with its peaks and troughs, and intersperses the romantic fare with restless outbursts from indoors.
Opener “Pink Diamond” is an abrupt toss on to the dancefloor of an unfamiliar club. Blaring sirens and distortion attack you from all fronts, as Charli absurdly keeps her cool over the unrelenting stomp, nonchalantly insisting, “I just wanna go real hard.” She has always been a bit of a joker, but beginning an album like this brings her antics to a whole new level. If the juxtaposition of the dark, pulsating track and her coy composure seems jarring, it’s by design. Charli wrote the song to express the idea of wanting to go out and party, but being stuck in quarantine. One track in, the album already seems like a Covid-19 classic. Next comes lead single “Forever,” a perfect instance of Charli claiming a sound all of her own. With his cartoonish productions, AG Cook brings out the self-aware silliness that characterizes Charli’s music, much like his P.C. music peer Sophie did on 2016’s “Vroom Vroom.” This time, however, he offers up a novel blend of hi and lo fi sonics that is the perfect match for the song’s scrapbook aesthetic. Charli sings, “I’ll love you forever / Even when we’re not together,” to a tune so twee that it seems automated. True to its form, the love wouldn’t waver even if its eventual expiration were presumed. But of course, there’s the backstory with its happy ending.
Bubblegum pop and hard-hitting, abrasive electronics are a winning combination, and Charli sticks to this formula on “Claws.” She continues to play up the artificial angle, splitting up her melodies into snippets of robotic repetition, and singing saccharine lyrics about the rush of infatuation in monotone voicings. Dylan Brady of genre-defying electronic duo 100 Gecs takes over production duties here, and ends the track with an outrageous EDM buildup. On “7 Years,” a song about a couple’s journey, Charli is overenthusiastic and intentionally off-key, putting on her most exaggerated display of teenage girl giddiness. The song develops into a kaleidoscopic, Auto-tune escapade. “Detonate” picks up on the momentum, with a rhythm that doesn’t flow so much as it bubbles and sputters. In an album full of unbridled celebration, this is an outlier, with Charli voicing uncertainties about love and trust. Still, with her vocals spliced and scattered in a hyperactive romp, it’s a festive moment of contemplation.
Charli finds a rather brilliant angle for a love song on “Enemy,” singing a refrain of “Baby, you’re my enemy.” If you keep your friends close and your enemies closer, roles invert themselves, and the implications are beyond twisted. Subdued ‘80s synth-pop stylings supplant the futuristic flurries of the last few tracks, for a relative ease of tension. Midway, a recording of a therapy session makes its way into the mix, consistent with the diaristic nature of the whole album. “I Finally Understand” is the product of such sessions, with lines like “My therapist said I hate myself real bad.” Rather than a lone lamentation, however, this is merely a stepping stone to the titular revelation, and Charli is back to declaring her love over a bouncy, UK garage-informed beat that picks up where “Detonate” left off. “C2.0” is an afterthought on “Click,” a cut from Charli’s last album. A celebration of good company, it finds Charli pitch-shifted to helium timbre, bombarded by bursts of distortion, with A.G. Cook throwing all caution to the wind in regard to clipping. Charli fixates on the titular word, in an exercise of maddening repetition that takes whimsical turns, and builds into a swirling, sugary sendoff.
“Party 4 U,” a fan favorite that floated around for a couple years, seems newly appropriate at the present moment. Charli sings, in painstaking detail, about throwing a party for someone who doesn’t show up. As people everywhere find themselves isolated in quarantine, throwing and attending parties by the most awkward of means, the idea is relatable. Charli’s voice disappears into reverb in sections, making you feel the effect of distance. Midway comes more mechanical repetition, with Charli still as insistent about partying as she was on the opener. She continues her chorus until plodding thunderclaps finally lead her to audience applause. Next comes “Anthems,” the most energetic track of the whole lot. A ravey, high octane banger, full of metallic springs and clangs, it’s a song for trampolines and firecrackers, with Charli making her case for partying more convincingly than ever before. Finally, having made it this far, she sprawls out over lush synth washes and scattered effects on “Visions.” After the whole journey, with all the scrapbooking and romanticizing that came along the way, she maintains, “I got pictures in my mind,” and proceeds undauntedly toward what pulls her. A pulsegives way to a beat, which intensifies into a raging, hardcore electronic stomp. Charli literally goes out with a bang.
Charli XCX has always been a pop star of the future. She presents herself as a chic caricature with twee tunes and sugary hooks, streamlined and packaged in bright colors. A.G. Cook’s productions roguishly play up all the excesses of contemporary electronic music in a way that cleverly appeals to enthusiasts and detractors alike, and is the perfect conduit for Charli. With a sound and sensibility firmly rooted in the present, Charli was ready when catastrophe came. In a world of social distancing, connections require more imagination, and Charli’s outlandish extravagance taps into the collective mind. Admittedly silly love songs like Charli’s are already enjoyable for their camp novelty. On “How I’m Feeling Now,” however, they acquire new depth from a backstory so perfect it could have been written afterwards. As restless spirits, confined to their solitary quarters, wait desperately for the pandemic to hopefully end so that the party can resume, Charli XCX has her finger on the pulse.
“How I’m Feeling Now” is available May 15 on Apple Music.