On 6th April Charli XCX announced, via Instagram, that she would write and record a new album while quarantined at her home in Los Angeles. “SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT”, the post read, “I AM MAKING A NEW ALBUM. RELEASE DATE MAY 15TH. WORKING TITLE: HOW I’M FEELING NOW”.
Five weeks is a worryingly quick turnaround for a full-length album. But How I’m Feeling Now turns out to be the most accomplished and cohesive collection of songs to date from Charli XCX (born Charlotte Aitchison). Genuinely inventive, its lean eleven tracks are both desperately fun and fervently intense – appropriate for the conditions in which it was made.
The album shudders into life with “Pink Diamond”, a colossal opener that references trance and Space Invaders, ending with cacophonous, industrial bleats and drones. A hedonistic fantasy written at a time when all nightlife is shut down, Aitchison rap-sings in her brattish monotone: “I’m online and I feel so glamourous… In real life could the club even handle us?”
For the most part, the album references Aitchison’s relationship with her long-term boyfriend, with whom she is isolating. Feelings abound on the spritely “Claws”, co-written and produced by Dylan Brady of experimental duo 100 Gecs. Aitchison is no stranger to a deceptively simple killer hook, and the repetition of “I like / I like / I like / I like / I like everything about you” is an instant earworm. Squeaky, impish production emphasises the childlike naivety of the sentiment.
Although tracks like “Forever” stray into more romantic territory, (“I will always love you / Even when we’re not together”), How I’m Feeling Now is not a complete lyrical departure from previous Charli XCX records. Its songs still feature the well-trodden XCX-isms of clubs, drugs and parties, albeit now viewed through the vicarious lens of lockdown.
“Anthems” is the album’s flagship club banger, a nod to all the missed nights out via a jagged symphony of breakneck synths. “Party 4 u” references “champagne pouring in your mouth” and “the party bag with the purple pills”. And while on earlier Charli XCX tracks, monogamous romance and extravagant partying often seem mutually exclusive, love on “7 years” sounds like unbridled hedonism. Aitchison’s frank lyrics about the up-and-down trajectory of her on-off relationship over the past seven years are set to echoing synth – this is the album’s closest thing to a straightforward pop song, and the emotional heart of the record.
Not everything is rosy, though. On “Detonate” Aitchison sings “Hurt me, no you won’t hurt me / I’m about to detonate / Pull you close, and then I’ll be gone”, exploring self-destructive tendencies. By the end, her voice is so distorted it’s practically zeroes and ones, reduced to an indecipherable digital signal.
The barbed and trippy “c2.0” is the sequel to “Click”, a riotous ode to friendship featured on 2019 album Charli. On “Click” Aitchison boasted, “I’m next level, so legit / With all my clique”: these lyrics are remixed on “c2.0”, but distorted and rendered much lonelier. “I miss them every night,” she laments in a melancholy warble. “I miss them by my side.”
The deconstruction of “Click” into “c2.0” has precedent. The experimental “Track 10” from 2017 mixtape Pop 2 was repurposed into the radio-friendly “Blame It On Your Love” on last year’s Charli. Now, Aitchison takes a track from Charli and remakes it into something weirder – like before, but in reverse: moving away from the mainstream, instead of towards it. This direction of travel feels indicative of Aitchison’s approach to How I’m Feeling Now, which is more creatively aligned to Pop 2 and her first mixtape Number 1 Angel than her more accessible last album.
How I’m Feeling Now has never been referred to as a mixtape; this is officially the fourth studio album by Charli XCX. The decision feels intentional, suggestive of a heightened confidence in her creative command. 2019’s Charli was a solid and at times brilliant record, but lacked the innovation of the off-season tapes. How I’m Feeling Now counters that, and then some. This may be an album about the spectrum of human emotion in isolation, but it’s also an exultant album by pop’s most interesting star.