Charli XCX Dances Proudly Into Vulnerable New Territory on how i’m feeling now
You can hear the authenticity and work ethic in every fuzzy beat of music's first major quarantine albumMusic Reviews Charli XCX
When Charli announced she would be recording how i’m feeling now from her home studio with remote assistance from A.G. Cook (who supposedly was working from Montana with an awful wi-fi signal) and BJ Burton, the result—something fun, experimental, and a bit contemplative—was more or less expected. What came as a surprise was the album’s heavy nostalgia. As opposed to Charli’s future-forward self-titled album from last year, how i’m feeling now reflects on her DIY past and preternatural obsession with the dancefloor.
how i’m feeling now’s narrative is defined partially by Charli’s interactive video diaries through Instagram Live and Zoom, which served both as real-time documentation of her creative process and an opportunity for fans to offer input on lyrics, production choices and beats. Charli was in high spirits during the album’s Zoom announcement: “I know this time period is different for everybody, and everybody has to do what they need to do to feel as happy as possible. For me, that’s being creative.”
Based on the album’s opening half, Charli was feeling an itch to go hard, party and spend time reflecting on her relationship with boyfriend Huck Kwong, who presumably was in the other room during recording sessions (he flew out to London specifically so the couple could quarantine together). As an eternal extrovert, Charli’s often hilarious when expressing her frustrations about being trapped inside, yelling “I’m so bored!” on “anthems.” But even when she’s up late wallowing in existential dread, Charli manages to make her own fun during quarantine.
“Pink diamond” opens the album with deep house hoovers crashing into sonic walls, relentlessly slamming against a tight echo chamber of reverb and heavily phasered vocals. Charli is similarly frustrated here, aggressively chanting “I just wanna go real hard, I just wanna go real hard,” like an apocalyptic mantra. It qualifies as “party yearning,” wanting so bad to be wasted and messy but being denied even that during our ongoing social distance.
Charli’s greatest strength—her collaborative spirit—is also her major flaw, something that became even more apparent on how i’m feeling now. Charli’s dedication to using her crossover success to highlight her favorite artist and producer friends is commendable, but, unfortunately, that means Charli’s identity can sometimes be scattered, lost or at odds with those artists. “i finally understand,” for example, is Charli’s first time working with Benjy Keating (Palmistry), a lo-fi dancehall track with a plodding, airy beat. So… it’s essentially a Palmistry song. Dylan Brady (100 gecs) found a cozy home on the album, his particular brand of crunkcore revival rearing its candy-necklaced head even on tracks where he’s not featured (it’s particularly apparent on “claws,” a track that wouldn’t be out of place on a MySpace profile). She also owes much to Abra’s darkwave-meets-bedroom-R&B, hiding behind balmy, lush synth and sensual drums on “party 4 u,” a lo-fi, but not ill-produced, pop-rap song. It’s one of the album’s most emotional moments, as Charli plays event planner for her boo’s perfect party of two (“Birthday cake in August / But you were born 19th of June”). It’s proof Charli’s still able to take influence from her circle and morph it into her own.
Though the glitchy sound art and experimental edges of Pop 2 are missed, Charli deftly revives the techniques of the ’90s eurotrance scene that proved formative for her musical development. how i’m feeling now often feels like a spiritual successor to her debut True Romance, featuring the same vivacious, bratty attitude but with heavy doses of vulnerability mixed in. While Charli laid herself bare showcasing the messy, exhausting process of recording on a tight turn-around, she also entered a new “era” with her partner, who inspired much of the album. Charli is at her most convincing on “7 years,” the album’s heart, as she sorts out her own priorities stream-of-consciousness style and lives out her domestic dreams. It’s Charli’s idea of rhythmic balladry (which gives us the album’s most memeable lyric: “Without the holy matrimony, I’m wife”), but more than that it’s a declaration of commitment. Charli’s proud of her relationship and what it’s rapidly morphed into over the past few months, and she’s unafraid to let us in on the anxious, chaotic path that led the couple here. If how i’m feeling now is defined both by burgeoning vulnerability with fans and towards her partner, “7 years” is where those lines no longer parallel one another.
On album closer “visions,” Charli’s certified Alice Deejay moment (seriously, who needs guitars anyway?), she imagines a post-prom moment heralded by rapid arpeggios, laser-gun synths and strobing lights. Just before her voice scatters into dust on the major four-on-the-floor breakdown, she whispers “finally think I’m realizing” right as she’s pulled into a kiss. It’s a dreamy moment of clarity and a gesture towards the future that’s been set-up so sincerely by the whole project, an acceptance of the unknown regarding the arcs of her relationship, career or humanity’s future. In that way, how i’m feeling now is the purest form of mindfulness.
There is no “Vroom Vroom’’ on how i’m feeling now, and certainly no “I Got It,” but here Charli still brings the glowstick mania and crunchy bedroom beats of the past, complete with antique waveforms and over-processed vocals. While how i’m feeling now is by no means Charli’s most genre-pushing work, nor an indication of the creative potential she has left, it will be remembered as a quintessential 2020 album—not just because of its unique recording constraints, but because of the passion, authenticity and work ethic interwoven in every fuzzy beat and every sprightly, lovelorn lilt of Charli’s most intimate vocal work to date.
Austin Jones is an intern at Paste. He writes about music, videogames and queer issues. He’s an avid fan of electronic and pop music, horror games, Joanna Newsom and ’80s-’90s anime. You can follow him on Twitter @belfryfire.