ALBUM REVIEW: ‘how i’m feeling now’ by Charli XCX

The global lockdown has effectively remoulded the modern musical landscape at a rate that’s honestly never been seen before. A complete inability for anyone to tour has been accompanied by more and more summer release dates being pushed back to later in the year, leaving something of a dead zone around this time of year that’s the most extreme exacerbation of the summer lull possible. Of course, some have been able to work around it and use this time to their advantage, which has led to the rise livestreaming as a way for bands and artists to get live music out to listeners, but Charli XCX’s self-imposed project of writing, recording and releasing an album in its entirety while in quarantine screams of either creative drive amidst uncertain times, or a really bad idea of which the full magnitude has never really settled in. It’s not wise to totally dismiss the latter either; this release date has been pencilled in from the very beginning when the whole undertaking was first announced, and when that opens the door for so much to be rushed in order to adhere to a deadline, it’s too big a possibility to outright ignore. That’s only built upon when considering that this is coming less than a year after Charli, which was already an album in flux of what it wanted to be with its fair share of erratic and sometimes poorly-planned moments all fed through a wonky electro-pop filter that was mixed in itself. It’s not necessarily a case of smacking an album down before it’s even been listened to, but the information surrounding how i’m feeling now hardly feels like a sign of an album looking to make a clean landing, regardless of how it’s spun.

To that extent then, how i’m feeling now is almost the most literal reinterpretation of bedroom-pop imaginable, not only in the intimate confines in which it was made, but also in the lashings of acclaim it’s likely to get that are a direct result of the circumstances of its creation and not much else. Like with so much of Charli’s work, this is very much an acquired taste, but there’s a number of instances where the narrative around how i’m feeling now’s creative process acts as an ‘explanation’ for decisions that just cannot land. It’s not exactly defendable either – the self-imposed nature of this project points any blame directly back at Charli and how she could’ve easily made and polished this without the deadline – and thus, what’s left is an album that’ll try and pass off its glaring shortcomings as ‘stylistic’, while avoiding the fact that it really isn’t necessary for such an insular and pretty simplistic album to be presented as such, but is also happy to sell it to fans who’ll believe it to be a lot more ‘boundary-pushing’ than it actually is.

Because honestly, it would’ve been totally fine if how i’m feeling now had just stuck to keeping itself as straightforward as possibly, if only to matching writing that, in capturing the big, swinging emotions that everyone who’s stuck inside is feeling right now, can get away with being a bit broad. The smaller details lend a bit more personality to the likes of claws and i finally understand to highlight a setting that’s grounded in home life, but the broad strokes that Charli paints with are easy enough to forgive simply for the universality of emotions that are pretty much guaranteed to connect in one circumstance or another. There’s the expected ups and downs in a relationship from being constantly in such close quarters on tracks like forever and enemy, but also missing friends and being able to go out on pink diamond and c2.0. party 4 u might skirt that relatability somewhat, as a song about throwing a party for someone who doesn’t show up that’s been wrenched into the tracklist for a spurious connection of missing someone, but mostly, how i’m feeling now is perfectly agreeable in its intentions.

On the other side of that though, there’s everything that goes around those intentions, where how i’m feeling now steps away from its humble roots to turn into another robo-pop grind that struggles to do anything with it. It’s hardly a coincidence that it shares a lot sonically with Charli’s mixtape work when it’s something that was put together on the quick, but also where a bit of reworking would’ve gone a long way to stop it sounding as slapdash as it does. The heavy AutoTune on Charli’s voice can already cultivate some air of futurism in itself, but when that’s then augmented with mechanical whirrs and clanks within a mix that’s fairly small and sparse in itself, it’s being odd for the sake of it and rarely connecting to anything when that’s the case. There’s no real way to make it sound all that good either; the reason that i finally understand is probably the best track here is because it pivots in a more cogent pop direction with a quick, tight beat that stays understated, rather than piling on effects to make a crop of songs that, honestly, aren’t all that catchy or memorable to begin with even less so. It’s all the more noticeable when the anchoring melodies of these songs are bright, chiptune pieces that clash horrendously with everything laid over them, leading to the clanking mess of claws that upends all likability thanks to its grinding crunch, or the remix of Clique from Charli in c2.0 and the crushing buzz of anthems that define a particularly obnoxious final leg. It’s not entertaining to listen to, pulling out weirdness and offbeat sensibilities for no reason other than it can, and it’s what fans have been conditioned to hear at this point. And sure, there will be some for whom this connects with far more potently just like with Charli, but this sort of harsh, unfocused listen will do nothing for anyone outside of that crowd, perhaps even less so than the last album given how any semblance of crossover potential has been tossed aside this time around.

Then again, that does make sense, given how this was supposed to be an album drawing on fan input and collaboration, meaning it’s ultimately what that fanbase wants to hear. As such, for someone who isn’t in that fanbase, criticising how i’m feeling now feels pretty pointless, but simultaneously relevant in trying to discern where exactly Charli XCX stands as an artist. There’s a clear populist streak to her in the writing, but demolishing that to such a ferocious extent everywhere else in the presumed pursuit to be ‘avant-garde’ just mitigates a clear strength that she does have, and that limits this album’s range when it effectively walls in its targeted range to existing fans and them alone. As such, this doesn’t feel like an album that’ll leave much of an impression beyond a relic of creativity in quarantine, an interesting case in itself but one that’s vastly overshadow the output before long.

5/10

For fans of: 100gecs, Grimes, Kim Petras
Words by Luke Nuttall

‘how i’m feeling now’ by Charli XCX is out now on Asylum Records.

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