By: Heather Bushman
I’ll begin like any responsible writer and acknowledge my biases: I absolutely love Charli XCX.
Charli seamlessly fuses elements of music’s past and future to create soundscapes that feel incredibly in-the-moment, blending Britney and The Spice Girls with her production in an effort to execute her idea of prime pop. She’s a musician’s musician: a workaholic with an ear for unconventional hooks and a firm grip on the standard Top 40 formula. She’s also a person’s person: charming and honest in interviews and press, sincere when interacting with fans, and appreciative of her peers and collaborators. Inventive, eccentric, and as talented as they come, Charli XCX is one of my favorite artists working today and one of pop music’s most beloved figures.
So when I heard we were getting an album, was I excited? Yeah, you could say that.
Almost immediately after how i’m feeling now was released, my fingers were flying across the keyboard in frantic praise. By 12:01 I was ready to put this record in my personal hall of fame, but, thankfully, decided against basing my final thoughts on one listen. Instead, I opted to sit with it for a few days, play it through a couple times, and then come to a conclusion. It didn’t feel right to think about an album review with everything going on in the world, so I shelved this piece and took the time to educate myself, sign petitions, and donate when I could (which we should all still be doing, by the way). Still, when the time came to start writing again, I couldn’t get this record out of my head. After revisiting and replaying several times through, I can honestly say that my original verdict stands:
how i’m feeling now is a very good album.
From start to finish, it’s classic Charli. “pink diamond,” true to its name, is as fun and feminine as it is tough and tenacious, setting the tone for the album within the first few bars. Charli has always had a particular propensity for opening and closing tracks, and this is no exception. “I just wanna go real hard,” she bellows in the chorus over dark pulsing synths and pounding kick drums. Lead singles “forever” and “claws,” act as a one-two punch dedicated to relationship longevity, the former dripping in somber sincerity and the latter taking a more lighthearted approach. Tracks like “detonate” and “enemy” take a dive into self- deprecation, examining isolation and intimacy over bright bell tones, dark bass lines, and transitionary electronic nuance.
If there’s one thing Charli XCX has mastered, it’s the concept of rewarding her listener. Her music is constantly building, changing, or even decomposing throughout its duration. The bridge of “forever” evolves into a frenzied synthesizer session, the last eight bars of “detonate” offer a frantic tempo increase with a plummeting pitch in the background, and “party 4 u” tears its heavy chorus away for isolated vocal layering, just to build back up again. In every section, a new element is added or transformed. On this album especially, easter eggs calling back to earlier eras are abundant, whether it be the “Unlock It”-reminiscent “rollercoaster ride” line on “claws” or the entirely repurposed “Clique” production in “c 2.0.” The direction of a Charli XCX song is entirely unpredictable, and because of that, she gives us a reason to keep listening. how i’m feeling now is electropop overdrive: synthesizers spiking and cycling, kick-drums and gated snares amplified and reverbed to the point of sounding like successive crashes, and idiosyncratic ad-libs buzzing and whirring in the background.
The album is clean, but the last four tracks are especially spotless. Lyrically present and sonically pristine, this is where how i’m feeling now hits its stride. “c 2.0” starts the run with the nostalgic “Clique.” While preceding tracks allude to the loneliness of quarantine, “c2.0” is the first time the album addresses our new reality directly: we can’t be with our friends right now. “I miss them every night, I miss them by my side,” she laments in a lonely exploration of the companionships of yesterday, all while the instrumentals mix and morph throughout. “party 4 u” follows with a Gatsby-esque grandeur of quiet desperation, detailing the gathering of the century dedicated to just one person. “anthems,” the Dylan Brady (100 gecs)-produced standout, juxtaposes the anticipation to return to normalcy with the newfound mundanity of COVID living. “Wake up late eat some cereal, try my best to be physical, lose myself in a tv show, staring out to oblivion” is a deadpan take on the typical to-do list of current times, but sonically, “anthems” has the highest energy of every track on the album. It pines for the nightlife, and it sounds like is ready to rave. “visions” offers an ambiguous ending, starting off subdued but mutating into flurry of frenzied synthesizers with a relentless backbeat. Its initial euphoria gradually gives way to a cryptic chaos, and we’re left with the sentiments of uncertainty that many of us feel regarding our current state of affairs. In a perfect world, the future is a promising concept, but on “visions,” Charli reminds us that we’re venturing into uncharted territory, and the outcome is unknown.
The record is fantastic on its own, but it’s impossible to discuss how i’m feeling now without considering the context.
how i’m feeling now is an album made entirely from scratch. From the official album announcement on April 6 to its release on May 15 , Charli and producer A.G. Cook (with guest production from Dylan Brady and BJ Burton) wrote, recorded, and mixed the entire thing while quarantining in their respective homes. Lyric ideas and audio samples were exchanged in the form of screenshots and voice memos, final cuts were finished over FaceTime, and photos and videos were shot in front of bedroom backdrops and DIY green screens.
The project came as a total shock, and for good reason. Charli was already slated to release a record later in the year, and that was just coming off of 2019’s Charli. There was no expectation of a drop from her, even under normal circumstances. The fact that these are definitely not normal circumstances is what makes this release even more surprising. The “norm” right now, if there is such a thing, is to delay a release. Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, The 1975’s Notes on a Conditional Form, HAIM’s Women in Music Pt. III, the list goes on and on: record releases are being pushed back, put off, and postponed out of safety concerns.
Of course, in true Charli fashion, she took these expectations and did exactly the opposite. She didn’t just release an album in spite of the challenging circumstances, she made one because of them.
Comparing other artists’ responses to “the new normal” with Charli’s is indicative of a) the reliance on the traditional album cycle and b) Charli’s complete abandonment of it. In a world that demands a constant stream of content, the idea of an artist hitting the pause button indefinitely is a tough concept to grasp, especially for that artist. What happens when the system around which you’ve built your livelihood collapses on itself? When will that system return? What will it look like when it does? how i’m feeling now was conceived as an answer to these questions, and the end result further contributes to what die-hards have been insisting for years: Charli XCX is always one step ahead.
Will how i’m feeling now change the structure of commercial music? I’m inclined to say yes, especially considering Charli’s reputation as a pioneer and a game-changer in the industry. Hailed as “the future of pop music” on more than one occasion, it’s not hard to envision other artists following her lead on this release format.
The idea of this new format becoming a standard is even more realistic given how well it worked. Maybe it’s because of the innovative production choices and unusually catchy compositions, encouraging in-depth analyses of each track or the novelty of the rollout, incorporating fans at an unprecedented capacity and raising the levels of investment. Maybe it’s due to the majority of the music industry being on pause right now; we’re all desperate for content to discuss and dissect. Either way, how i’m feeling now is, at least speaking in the short-term, a success.
Charli’s pandemic project has left a noticeable impact. As of the date of this publication, it’s still generating significant buzz on social media. Discussions regarding where this record ranks among her discography are running rampant, remixes from the released stems are popping up everywhere, and it’s being added to fan and industry playlists alike. True, the hype could plummet as quickly as it peaked, but between the sky-high anticipation and the explosive reception, the moment (no matter how fleeting) still feels noteworthy.
It’s fascinating to speculate the future and the changes it may bring, especially with a release from an artist of Charli’s caliber. The real power of this record, however, lies in how it pertains to our current reality. how i’m feeling now is one of the only substantive works created during and inspired by the pandemic. While it certainly possesses the potential to shift the direction of the industry, its ultimate purpose is to serve as a time capsule of this quarantine. The longing of “party 4 u” and “anthems” is amplified when we remember that large gatherings are ill-advised at the moment, the affection and appreciation on “7 years” and “c 2.0” feels especially needed when we haven’t seen our loved ones in a significant amount of time (or need a break from them). The introspective self-analysis of “i finally understand” and “enemy” is more poignant given the extended number of days spent alone with our thoughts. Everything about the album is indicative of how we’re living now: the anxieties of isolation and the comfort of connection, virtual as it may be, conveyed by the creative process. This record is a representation of right now, and while its long-term influence is foreseeable, how i’m feeling now should be celebrated for how it is irrefutably rooted in the moment.
Tracks to Save: “c 2.0,” “party 4 u,” “anthems,” “visions”
Tracks to Skip: “i finally understand”