On an Instagram live stream where she’s working through lyrics for the song that would become ‘anthem’, Charli XCX takes advice from fans on whether a potential line about scrolling on her phone during quarantine is ‘too cringe’. The verdict is yes. She moves on to the next line unbothered. Later on she almost throws away another line because she’s reluctant to have yet another reference to parties. When the lyrics are settled she thanks everyone for helping and confesses that the experience was mildly scary for her. In the couple of minutes before her phone dies she tells viewers ‘I’ve never done anything like this’. Lyrical input from three thousand strangers aside, what was most unusual was her singing in public without autotune.
Self-doubt and insecurity colour a lot of the subject matter on how i’m feeling now, Charli XCX’s quarantine album made over the course of two months in full (virtual) view of her fans. It delves deep into the emotional wild west of lockdown ennui and into Charli’s current relationship, tracking the rapid shifts in mood and mindset that can feel like the only real events in a series of flat, repetitive days. Whereas a lot of Charli’s music to date has seemed destined to be played in a taxi with souped-up red lighting on the way to the club, references to house parties, clubs and friends here come with a melancholic pang that completely shifts the meaning of the words ‘bedroom pop’. ‘party 4 u’, which has been a fan favourite since its live debut in 2017, finds its final form as a slow-building, understated tribute to a kind of yearning (throwing a party in the hope that a specific person will come) that isn’t currently possible.
The glitchy, computerised sounds Charli has experimented with over the past few years find their most fitting expression so far on this album, which was made by necessity in a digital hive. While the more vulnerable, loosely structured solo tracks on Charli and Pop 2 jostled for space with polished, feature-heavy club-pop anthems, the absence of guests on how i’m feeling now has pushed Charli to flesh out her solo territory. Collaboration here mostly takes other forms – crowdsourced music videos; iPhone photos reworked into album covers by friends and fans; beats produced and mixed by multiple people. Without the usual cast of guest performers, though, there is also a stronger sense of queer pop and underground dance subcultures being mined and repackaged for a wider audience.
Charli stated when she announced the project that she wanted her writing process to be as open as possible. This transparency was necessarily enabled by digital media – weekly Youtube updates, phone note screenshots, Instagram live streams and public Zoom discussions. The album itself is heavily attuned to the distance and the closeness produced by different modes of communication. Where normally Charli might sing about calling someone to invite them over or out, the lyrics here reflect on a social world pushed to polar extremes – either being quarantined indefinitely in close quarters with someone, or subsisting for months on virtual interaction. On ‘anthem’, she feels that ‘all my friends are invisible’: even if you talk all the time, the pixelated video-chat rectangles start to feel like unsatisfactory holograms of the physical form behind them.
The opening track, ‘pink diamond’, is an ode to the fractured collective experience of Zoom house parties: ‘In real life could the club even handle us?’. Charli throws deadpan lines about dressing up to dance in the living room up against a wall of distorted, screeching synth sounds. This frantic energy also comes through in a lot of the more fast-paced songs. The way the verses slip straight into the choruses on ‘anthem’ reproduces the feeling of an oversaturated mind growing dependent on electronic stimulation. The stuttering beats on ‘c.20’ sound like a Bluetooth speaker that’s running out of battery while being half-drowned out by wind. ‘visions’ starts out in a warm bath of memory, enters into a club atmosphere where you can almost hear the strobe lighting and smoke machines and finally spirals into a thinning landscape of clashing, automated sounds.
Many of the trademark Charli XCX nouns – rollercoasters, parties, diamonds, lip gloss – surface on this album. But they’re also joined by a new cast – online shopping, TV shows, tension. ‘c2.0’, built on A. G. Cook’s rework of ‘Click’ from Charli, is a concrete monument to this shift in register. A song that was originally, in Charli’s words, ‘a very braggy song about our community of artists’ is melted down and reformed into a sighing narrative of disconnection as she sings ‘I miss them’ over and over. ‘7 years’ charts the long-term, large-scale shifts in her relationship which is currently in quarantine incubation: ‘We went from distant to inseparable twice’. ‘detonate’ explores the feelings of claustrophobia and uncertainty that set in under these close conditions. After the choruses Charli releases a string of questions and anxieties – ‘Why should you trust me?’, ‘Why should you love me?’ The post-therapy voice note monologue in the middle of ‘enemy’ works like an update on the temporary depression of melancholic house interludes, in this case stressing the difficulty of getting out of your own head.
wrote this verse on insta live the other day with all the angels watching. thanks for ur help. i think this will make the album ?? pic.twitter.com/baDGy9r4r8
— Charli (@charli_xcx) April 23, 2020
For the listener, encountering lyrics in tweeted phone note screenshots before hearing them set to music produces a different kind of rawness – on first listening I half had the sensation that I’d written some of them because they felt lightly familiar. The jumpy, super-short phrases of ‘Claws’ (‘We’re so high / Rollercoaster ride / Gemini’) seemed discordant and unfinished on virtual paper but, as in all of her best songs, the fragments make sense together. The lyrics to ‘I Finally Understand’ – also shared in an early screenshot – feel a little hastily thrown together (‘My therapist said I hate myself really bad’, ‘This feeling that I’ve found / Might kill me, put me in the ground’). But the off-kilter cadence and tone of some of the clunkier lyrics are fitting for an album whose main concern is uncertain and shifting emotions.
The vocal melody on ‘I Finally Understand’ recalls the smoothly autotuned voices of 90s 2-step and, without over-relying on detective work, the early 2010s club-oriented electronica that Charli’s boyfriend Huck Kwong tweeted about in February feels present as well. Within this jumble of influences it feels at first like there isn’t much to hook on to – the song is brief and each section of it is fleeting. There are several moments on the album where you can hear the shadow of an idea that wasn’t polished to its full shiny potential, but left with jagged edges.
Where previous albums have felt divided between conflicting sensibilities, how i’m feeling now beautifully synthesises the freeform glitchy experiments and the bubbly pop hooks that Charli is known for. The majority of the songs were produced by familiar collaborators – Dylan Brady of 100 gecs, BJ Burton, A. G. Cook and Danny L Harle. On this album, sounds of technological and mechanical collapse – crunching metal, shattered glass, glitching computers – aren’t toned down, but used to more targeted effect.
Cook and Harle are known as founders of PC music, which could be described as the latecoming sonic equivalent of net art. But if PC music builds soundscapes from the Windows startup noises of bygone technological eras, this album sounds like it comes from a bigger machine. SOPHIE, a previous collaborator of Charli’s and a pioneer of this post-industrial sound, feels like a pronounced absence. Tracks like ‘7 years’ and ‘visions’ mix the bubble-popping blips and synth licks of old computer games with the mechanical exertions of a junkyard where cars are crushed like Quality Street wrappers.
The blown-out computerised soundscape of the album lives in perfect sync with the hyper-online way it has been styled, packaged and promoted. Lower-case titles have become pretty ubiquitous in pop, often acting as a signifier of vulnerability and casual cool (see recent albums from Ariana Grande, FKA Twigs, Billie Eilish, Lykke Li). Here, though, the titles work in harmony with the flash iPhone photos on album covers and the patchworked aesthetic of the ‘Forever’ video. It feels fitting that the songs are kept in a lower-case draft status given the several lives they have lived in snippets and remixes online and in live shows over the years. Everything comes back to the ephemerality indicated by the title: I’m feeling this way now, but what about in a week or an hour?
In the five years between Sucker and Charli, Charli worked outside of the usual major label pop frameworks, scrapping a rumoured third album and working instead on mixtapes, singles and collaborations. Over the past two months, she placed the process of album-making – and the mystique and value attached to it – on a virtual stage. In this way how i’m feeling now begins to fulfil the expectations of endless sharing, collaboration and creativity that new media fostered around the beginning of the century. The idea of an album made publicly and in dialogue with fans seems like a relic from a time before the nebulous moment we switched over into the post-internet era. The participatory elements of how i’m feeling now shouldn’t be overstated; the music was, after all, largely made by an existing close group of collaborators. But it provides a dizzying glimpse into the fractured potential futures of pop.
how i’m feeling now is released today via Atlantic Records and is available to stream now. Fancy checking out more album reviews? Head over here.