ALBUM REVIEW: Charli XCX Finds Connection in Isolation

Her new album, ‘how i’m feeling now’, channels the anxieties of quarantine into a bold, delightful statement.

There’s always been a certain immediacy in Charli XCX’s distinctly warped brand of hyper-futuristic pop music; in her distinct blend of pure euphoria (“Unlock It”) and swerving rhythms (“Vroom Vroom”). But never has she made anything as immediately striking as her new album.

Initially announced in a Zoom call on April 6, and recorded in the span of a month under quarantine, the turbulent nature of how i’m feeling now‘s conception allows it to sound more potent than anything Charli XCX—real name Charlotte Aitchison—has tapped into before.

It’s not the first record created in lockdown, sure, but it just might be the first record that feels wholly connected to the whirlwind of emotions encompassing our ever-lengthening state of uncertainty. As the product of a pandemic impacting more all of our daily lives, this is a record that sounds deeply anxious, wildly chaotic and comfortingly hopeful, all at once.

On a more profound level than her previous record, Charli, what stands out here is Aitchison’s marvelous grasp of what pop songcraft can be. Charli was often fantastic, but the way it approached all these different styles of pop music felt incongruous; it showed remarkable range, but it wasn’t always successful in bringing them together cohesively. On how i’m feeling now, however, the music shows a far deeper understanding of how various strains of pop interact with one another, resulting in one of Aitchison’s most consistent song sets yet.

Her affinity for churning out irresistible hooks continues to be unmatched, and there’s no shortage of earworms here. On the Dylan Brady-produced “claws,” the hook, “I like everything about you,” is so rudimentary, but there’s something hypnotically addictive in the repetition of it all. The clattering percussion evokes Brady’s work as one half of 100 gecs, and the dopamine blast of that duo’s music carries over to this song for something exhilarating.

Elsewhere, the buoyant, trickling synths on “detonate” don’t really explode as much as they build into something radiant. The song is a fantastic exercise in deconstruction and reconstruction, zipping itself into light-speed as the final 10 seconds flick by. On the weirder end, there’s the terrific opener, burying Aitchison’s voice in a bevy of cluttered synths, as if every single pyrotechnic P.C. Music texture was mashed together for something made to evoke the cavernous sound of -era Justice.

It’s interesting to see how these tracks play against each-other: on the comparatively skeletal “party 4 u,” Aitchison’s voice takes center stage, and the song features long, mesmerizing passages fixated on just her voice. It plays a sharp complement to the following track, “anthems,” which explodes right out of the gate with Brady’s cavernous sawtooth attack in tow. This contrast feels purposeful; “anthems” is a song about boredom and the desire to escape, but it’s far more than that. Aitchison starts out lost and empty, longing for connection, but by the end she’s content in the arms of her lover. It’s a reflection of the increasingly nuanced way she writes about what she cares about, and it leads this album to its strongest places.

Take the third single, the pulsing, Palmistry-produced “i finally understand.” Even as the percussion slips and glitches in and out of drum-n-bass breaks, the focal point is Aitchison, opening up about therapy and self-loathing as her surroundings scatter onwards. Her gratitude towards her lover makes for one of the most sincere sentiments here: “You love me even when I hate myself.”

This sentiment feels even more unabashed on the album’s lead single, “forever,” where Aitchison gleefully sings “I’ll love you forever,” over and over again, as if she’s screaming it from the rooftops. The music whooshes and swirls around her voice, as if it embodies the song’s whirlwind of emotions, bowing out only for the most striking moment of emotional clarity.

On “forever,” Aitchison feels free—of existential dread, of anxiety, of expectations, of everything. In an uncertain time, the profound comfort this freedom brings can’t be overstated. It is a frequently heard sentiment, but Aitchison makes it feel like a salve here: everything will be alright in the end.

Score: 📹📹📹📹 / 5