Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Charli XCX How I’m Feeling Now

Last year, the phrase “quarantine album” meant absolutely nothing. Now its meaning is obvious. In the next couple of years, we’re going to get a deluge of quarantine albums from musicians that are trying to express what it feels like to be isolated at the end of the world. Charli XCX is, of course, one of the first ones to the party.

In many ways, an album made in quarantine is perfectly suited to an artist like Charli XCX. Since she started putting out demos on MySpace over a decade ago, she has been creatively restless and hard to pin down. She’s jumped from project to project and collaborator to collaborator. Her ping-ponging between sounds and styles has occasionally been sloppy, but more often than not watching her chameleon her way through the pop landscape has been invigorating. On How I’m Feeling Now, she’s forced to speed up while slowing down.

About a month-and-a-half ago, Charli announced her ambitious new plan. She would write and record an entire album from the Los Angeles house where she’s hunkered down with her boyfriend and two friends. She would collaborate with her producers online, trading ideas and beats back-and-forth. She would be transparent with her fans, keeping them updated every step of the way and soliciting feedback and suggestions. All of the songs on How I’m Feeling Now were previewed, in some form or another, in the many livestreams and video conferences that Charli has done since she started the project. A few of them date back to earlier than April 2020, but they were all polished and finalized within the last month.

It’s been an interesting experiment, and it’s proven to be a lot of fun. It’s also shown that Charli is at her best when her work is spontaneous and off-the-cuff, when the stakes are low enough that she feels free to follow her whims. Starting with her pair of 2017 mixtapes Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, she’s increasingly justified the need to play by her own rules. The self-imposed deadline and tight restrictions of How I’m Feeling Now clearly caused Charli some stress — see her crying while worrying about how she wouldn’t be able to come up with enough material — but it’s resulted in some of her best songs ever. The album is a pressure cooker that could have only come from Charli. It’s brute-force catchy and a whole lot of fun.

How I’m Feeling Now builds on the most intriguing, most intimate portion of last year’s more formal full-length Charli — namely, the tracks in the middle where Charli dropped her posse of featured guests and let herself be one with her emotions. Over the last few years, Charli songs have turned into big parties, inviting artists that inspire her along for the ride. Her music has become stronger because of that spirit of boundless collaboration, but the songs at the center of Charli were specific, and the absence of any other voices felt purposeful. They were about heartache and strife and what it feels like to be a hybrid internet pop star and also what it feels like to want to be happy as a human.

That’s the same thread Charli follows on How I’m Feeling Now. If Charli was an album full of sad bangers about pushing everyone away while desperately seeking a connection, How I’m Feeling Now is about trying to figure out what’s left after everyone has actually been pushed away by forces outside of our control. A lot of these songs take stock of her relationship with her boyfriend (and now, by necessity, frequent collaborator) Huck Kwong. Before she even started making it, she knew that’s what she wanted it to be about. “The whole album is going to be about my relationship with my partner,” she said in her very first Zoom call with her fans. “We’re quarantined together currently. We live on other sides of the country — he lives in New York, I live in LA a lot of the time… Distance is a real thing for us, that was a real challenge.”

That distance has been closed by the confines of self-isolation. All of these songs were recorded while Kwong was never more than a few feet away. That claustrophobia is palpable, and so is a sense of openness and vulnerability. Charli writes about her love in a tender, goofy way. “Yeah, I really, really love you for life,” she sings on one of them. “Without the holy matrimony, I’m wife/ We went from distant to inseparable types/ Oh yeah, it’s really, really, really, really nice.” That sentiment is absolutely corny, but Charli sells it because she buries those confessions in her confident warble.

Love isn’t the only emotion that Charli feels on How I’m Feeling Now. She also has a lot of self-doubt and frustration, pent-up aggression and loneliness. She wants to go out and be with her friends, she wants to learn how to appreciate her alone time, she is cherishing connecting with the person who she so clearly loves, she’s miserable and desperate to get out of the house. It’s a constant back-and-forth, one that’s no doubt familiar to everyone else that has been cooped up for months on end. Charli has been moving non-stop through pop music for so long that it’s been hard for her to even figure out how slow down. “I feel like I haven’t relaxed in like 10 years,” she said in our interview with her. “I’m in my house and I’ve walked around every room and noticed things about my house which I’ve lived in for four years.”

Quarantine has given a lot of people the time to slow down and reflect, for better and worse. The title How I’m Feeling Now operates as a kind of self check-in, an open-ended Facebook status for a newer generation. “My therapist said I hate myself really bad/ You tell me it’s fine, let me cry, and hug it out,” Charli sings on “I Finally Understand,” an emotional breakthrough that’s grounded in a mid-’00s dance shuffle. Sometimes the loudest tracks on How I’m Feeling Now feel the most exposed. “Anthems” is a particular highlight, the sound of an extrovert who craves constant human connection bouncing off the fucking walls when deprived of the close kinship she’s celebrated over her last couple albums. “All my friends are invisible/ 24/7, miss ‘em all/ I might cry like a waterfall/ I feel afraid when I feel alone,” she sings over a blasted chromatic beat, chanting: “I want anthems, late nights, my friends, New York,” all the things she misses and cannot have.

That one is an absolute marvel of production — it was made by 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady and Danny L Harle — and it’s a testament to how much can be done from a distance. Obviously most everything that happens in a studio can happen on a computer nowadays, especially with the music that Charli XCX makes, but there’s nothing that feels stitched together or disconnected about these songs. Charli, along with executive producers A.G. Cook and BJ Burton, have wrangled magic out of the constraints of How I’m Feeling Now’s creation. It’s impressive how fully realized it sounds. Every song expands and refines the palette that Charli has been working with over her last few projects, sickeningly sweet and intimidatingly aggressive and constantly folding in on itself like taffy.

Over a tight 37 minutes, Charli jumps from idea to idea, breathlessly attacking the kind of emotionally resonant bangers that have become her staple. It’s all impressively centered around Charli as a force of personality, locked-in interior monologues placed over blown-out songs that are reaching outward. “Pink Diamond” is a dazzling opening, a brash and intentionally messy build-up of stabbing synths and trashy glitter beats. “I just wanna go real hard,” she sings from the confines of her home. “In real life, could the club really handle us?” On “Party 4 U,” a fan-favorite live gem now immortalized on this album, she turns an awkward come-on (“I’m about to party on you”) into a sensual threat, sounding like a cabaret singer inviting you to the hottest club of 2070. There’s the tender clicking of “Detonate,” as Charli tries not to explode in self-doubt: “I don’t trust myself at all, why should you trust me? I don’t trust myself alone, why should you love me?”

“C 2.0″ is a remix of the posse cut “Click” that appeared on her last album. A song that was once about fucking around with your friends and feeling invincible has morphed into a lonely-sounding loop, hypnotic and weird, building immaculately into a chorus of different Charli’s chirping to each other. By the end of the final track “Visions,” Charli has devolved into a thumping digital soup, an alarm bell set off by someone who has run out of words to express all that she’s feeling. It’s a whole lot to take in, but it’s deliriously enjoyable.

On “Enemy,” Charli includes a bit of a speech that sounds like it could have come from one of her Zoom conferences. “I think a tough journey to be on is to be around all those people… I feel like I’m learning that about myself, and I don’t really understand it yet. It hurts…” Self-isolation can be beneficial if you let it. For Charli, it’s allowed her to scrutinize what what really matters to both her and her music. As she sang on a song last year, “I feel so unstable, fucking hate these people/ How they’re making me feel lately.” 

To get away from all those people is both a blessing and a curse, especially when the reasons for that distance are so complicated. On How I’m Feeling Now, Charli learns what it feels like to be alone. A night out with your friends can still be mind-altering fun, but it doesn’t need to be the driving force of your life. There are bigger things out there, like love and believing in yourself and making some of the best damn music of your life, alone. For an album made in a month entirely in quarantine, that’s a remarkable achievement.

How I’m Feeling Now is out now via Atlantic/Asylum.

Tags: Charli XCX