Sunday, May 17, 2020

Review: How I'm Feeling Now • Charli XCX

When a worldwide pandemic swept away the foundation from beneath everyday life and modern society at large, young people were warned to prepare for the loneliest experience of their lifetime. Isolated to their homes to limit the spread of COVID-19, Millennials pulled out a few stock activities to distract themselves: Invade and take over Generation Z’s favorite social media platform, bake banana bread and post the pictures to Twitter, and fabricate a demand for the newest Animal Crossing game so high that Nintendo Switch consoles became harder to find than cleaning and basic hygiene products. We created and consumed digital noise to deflect from the situation’s self-confrontational nature: The crisis has reaffirmed our own choices and circumstances – good, bad, or ugly. 

Singer-songwriter Charli XCX is ready not only to create something, but to document the spring of 2020. While she has spent quarantine with her boyfriend and a few roommates, she has dedicated many hours to video conferences and social media blitzes to curate a fan-powered, do-it-yourself album campaign that somehow feels more robust than some recent major label roll-outs. She kicked the production of her next record into overdrive via virtual collaboration, providing herself roughly a month to create How I’m Feeling Now, a snapshot of daily life during unprecedented crisis. Many songs were written and produced in just over a month, with the technical aspects of modern music production documented in video updates with special guests like Paris Hilton and one of the Cock Destroyers. (Did somebody say, “gay rights?”)

Charli’s previous three sets – two mixtapes and a self-titled record – were collaboration-heavy party records created with the most disruptive electronic production swatches she could find. Though still equipped with a PC Music processor here, she – for the first time since her debut record – focuses only on herself. Despite the plentiful shout-outs to Charli’s therapist, the record isn’t as self-destructive or anxiety ridden as expected for an album made in isolation. Instead, How I’m Feeling Now is the love letter to a boyfriend to whom she’s been tethered closely for a few months and counting – a refreshing reminder that love prevails through adversity. At a time when we’ve been convinced we should be lonely and bored, Charli‘s in love and able to reel in the line on a long-distance relationship; the conflicting feelings seem to have guided her to a place of inspiration.

As the integral element to her post-human approach to pop music, Charli’s voice becomes the ultimate instrument: Though she can deliver smooth and expressive stanzas when need be, like on love song “Forever,” she is often hardwired into the production boards as the most malleable digital tool. Matching an already electric synthesizer palette at play, her melodies glitch, ripple, and flatline to intensify Charli’s ultimate specialty: Composing a great one-liner and driving it home. On “Claws,” she trips into a choppy loop; on “I Finally Understand,” her phrasing bottoms out, some syllables getting dragged out beneath others. Indulging a bit in what have been, she howls out a fantastic melody as she longs for boozy late nights on “Anthems,” a hands-up banger that could act as the record’s mission statement: A set of ground-shaking club tracks created in memory of all the Friday nights without them.

While How I’m Feeling Now works to capture exactly as it promises, it is no simple task to summarize the dissonance between Charli's personal situation and the crisis. Sure, she reconciled and strengthened a seven-year relationship, but it happened only because they sought protection together from a global pandemic still in progress. Despite its ambitious goals and spontaneous genesis, this record boasts the precision and focus that other projects made within the Charli and PC Music collaborative have all lacked. It provides a succinct yet intriguing summary through textured, unpredictable tracks – some seizing in short, spastic bursts, and others drawn out into deep contemplation. And as a creation that will remain a defining timestamp of 2020, a record this sharp sure beats the hell out of some banana bread.

How I'm Feeling Now is available now under Atlantic Records.

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