Review: Charli XCX’s quarantine album, ‘how i’m feeling now,’ is a party of raw emotion
Charli XCX’s latest album “how i’m feeling now,” released on May 15, is her most conceptually cohesive and emotionally vulnerable album yet. Created entirely during the COVID-19 lockdown, the album portrays the loneliness, fear and hope that she has encountered while isolated from the world.
While many artists have delayed their album releases because of the pandemic, Charli used the circumstances as a source of inspiration. Despite not having access to recording studios, she leveraged video chats to work on the album alongside her collaborators — and she also included her fans in the album’s creation. From putting together a music video featuring clips from fans to asking for input on songs on social media livestreams, she opened up her creative process and shared her journey throughout the production of the album.
The album opens on a bold note with the brassy track “pink diamond,” marking Charli’s first collaboration with producer Dijon Duenas. “I just wanna go real hard, I just wanna go real hard,” Charli sings over a series of brash synths punctuated by laser-like bursts in the background. On the surface, the song sounds like a club anthem, but it soon dives into the reality of life at the moment. In her breathless, rap-like delivery, she drops the lines, “Lip gloss on and I'm lookin' like a star/Got a tiny bag, but I got a big heart/On the video chat” and “I'm online and I'm feeling so glamorous/Watch me shine for the boys and the cameras,” revealing her desire to let loose with her friends after weeks of isolation. This track sets the tone for the album — it may sound like a party, but amid the realities of living in quarantine, frustration, fear and loneliness lurk just below the surface.
In the next song, “forever,” Charli opens up about the state of a long-distance relationship prior to lockdown. “You and I drove for miles/Knew I'd be here, be here, be here with you,” Charli sings in warped vocals over punchy beats that roll in and out like waves. Her relationship was strained in the past, but being in quarantine has brought her and her lover closer. In the lines, “I know in the future/We won't see each other/Cold just like December/But I will always love you,” Charli shares the unconditional nature of her love for her partner.
Charli shares another side of her relationship in “detonate,” a song that sounds like it belongs in a candy-themed video game. The song opens with bubbly synths as Charli sings, “Close myself off in new ways/Building walls, he might say I can't turn back.” She shares her fear of hurting those she loves and how the emotional and mental distress caused by isolation with her lover could harm her relationship. Charli’s fear rises from her own unpredictability, which she expresses in the lines, “I don’t trust myself alone/Why should you love me” and “I’m not tryna be rude/I’m just feelin’ confused.” Charli’s raw emotion punctuates the album as she explores themes of fear and confusion, which she combines with her characteristic pop sound.
On “enemy,” the potential cause of turmoil in her relationship switches from her own shortcomings to those of her lover. The song plays on the phrase “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” as she ponders the possibility of her lover suddenly becoming her worst nightmare. Charli sings, “They say, ‘Keep your friends close’/But you're closer, I love when you're here.” She admits that she could be allowing herself to get hurt, but her love weakens her resolve. The song is based on an idea rather than her true emotions, but the interlude features a recording of herself after a therapy session. She confesses, “I feel like I’m learning that about myself/And I don’t really, really understand it yet/It hurts here.” This raw, unprocessed moment contrasts with the fuzzy, thumping production in the rest of the song and exposes her reality of uncertainty and unknowns.
Charli also shares what she misses about pre-pandemic life: her friends, parties and good times. On “c2.0,” we witness her ability to take old work and reinvent it, as the track samples her song “Click” from her last album, “Charli.” She keeps the energy of “Click,” but rather than singing about partying and driving fast cars — staple imagery in her songs — she sings about missing her friends with the lines, “Phone calls every night, had a new glow/My clique running through my mind like a rainbow.”
The song “party 4 u” stands out from the rest of the album in that it’s the oldest song — while she played it at past shows, she hadn’t released it until now. The song is about throwing a party for a specific person and hoping they’ll show up. She admits this in the lines, “Only threw this party for you, for you, for you/I was hopin' you would come through.” Charli remains optimistic through the song and sings, “Come to my party/All I'm thinking, all I know is/That I hope you knock on my door” toward the end. As “party 4 u” concludes with the sound of audience cheers fading out, the following track “anthems” cranks the party’s energy all the way back up with a clunky, racing beat. Charli proves that the party isn’t over just because of disappointment. It’s unexpected moments like this that make the record especially exciting.
Rather than closing the album with an emotional ending — “party 4 u” was originally considered the last track — she leaves listeners with a dreamy, trance-like song. In the closing track “visions,” she sings about a bright future for her and her lover, singing “I got pictures in my mind/I can see it so clearly, see it all so bright/I see you and I.” Halfway through the song, the production shifts to a rave-like beat, ultimately ending the album with high energy.
On “how i’m feeling now,” Charli XCX meshes her in-your-face pop sound with raw emotions to create an album that is truly relevant in its confessions of fear and hope. Her last album, “Charli,” shows her penchant for combining experimental electronic production with larger-than-life pop lyrics, a style she has been developing over the past few years through her collaborative relationship with PC Music’s A. G. Cook. With “how i’m feeling now,” she expresses a wider range of emotions by pairing her futuristic hyper-pop sound with vulnerable lyrics. She stays true to her style and sound and manages to grow within it, cementing her position as one of pop music’s most innovative stars.