Pop Album Review: “how i’m feeling now” by Charli XCX — What Life is Like, Sheltering in Place

By Alex Szeptycki

Charli has successfully dramatized her impatiently jagged state of mind, supplying an emotionally honest stream of consciousness that suggests what she (and no doubt many others of her generation) is feeling and thinking in quarantine.

The more I listen to how i’m feeling now, the latest effort from Charli XCX, the more I’m convinced that the quarantine album is now its own genre. I’m not a fan of the fetish to categorize every song under the face of the earth under some inscrutable heading. But so much music has been released recently that reflects life under the restrictions of COVID-19 that a critic can’t help but take note. And, if you grant there is such a thing as a quarantine album, how i’m feeling now may well be a definitive example. Over scatterbrained, sometimes experimental, pop instrumentals, Charli candidly explores her conflicted feelings and mental state during lockdown. The result is an exciting, though sometimes messy, experience.

Every aspect of how i’m feeling now reflects the ennui and isolation of lockdown. From the lowercase stylized album and song titles to the selfie of Charli on the cover, the album exudes a kind of DIY homeyness. The music video for the lead single, “claws” is representative: Charli dances in her home in front of a constantly changing green screen. The rough edges are readily apparent, but they add considerable homemade flavor to the sound and the performance. The ragged ambience feels raw and honest, while the visuals provide playful, if rough-hewn, escapism.

The music is a bit of a contradiction: restless spirit intertwined with muteness. For example, the “claws” instrumental reflects the signature sound of producer and 100 Gecs songwriter Dylan Brady, his preference for the diversely cacophonous. But the chaos feels restrained; the tinny, wavering synth line hovers over disco drums, teetering on the edge but never tipping over into sonic disarray. This peculiar balance is also a part of a quirky love song. In it, Charli sings “I like I like I like I like, I like everything about you”: her delivery is lighthearted enough to come off as antic, but not so much as to cross over the line into silliness.

Even during the album’s louder, more energetic moments, there are signs of restraint. Charli has a knack for crafting pop songs that exalt high-decibel settings: it can be a sweaty club, or a packed arena, or a speeding car with its windows down. Take “Next Level Charli” off her previous album, a song whose booming bass and thick synths almost demanded to be blasted full gale. Contrast that with “anthems” here, the closest thing to a party cut on how i’m feeling now. Over a driving synth line, Charli wishes that she could go out and “wake up feeling brand new.” But this desire is tempered by recognition of a harsh reality. Lamentations of “Wake up late/Try my best to be physical/Lose myself in a TV show/Staring into oblivion” provide a grim counterbalance to Charli’s dreamy wish to be renewed.

Charli XCX relaxing at home. Photo: Facebook.

“visions,” the rave-like closing track, has similar aspirations for freedom. Here, over an EDM-inspired track, Charli once again dreams of what she is going to do once her regular life resumes. “I got pictures in my mind,” Charli repeats as the music slowly crescendos; she sounds starry-eyed, looking toward a bright future. But this dream is fragile. Slowly, the driving synths become increasingly discordant, eventually fading into a beeping, alarm-like sound. Her awakening is harsh — lockdown is her reality.

When Charli isn’t planning what she’ll do when she gets out of quarantine, she’s is startlingly straightforward about what her life is like during lockdown. “detonation,” for example, is a vulnerable track that deals with her tendency to lash out. Charli bemoans her occasional episodes of volatility. Charli is proud, but also ashamed, of her power to make others uncomfortable: “Dirty, I can talk dirty/I can make you feel so sick,” she sings over bright synths. Elsewhere, on “enemy,” Charli ruminates on a current relationship, wondering if she has become too close to her partner. She is plainly conflicted, singing “you’re the only one who knows how I really feel/You could do a little damage you could cut me deeper.” She openly grapples with her fear of opening up, worrying that she will end up being the one who is hurt.

Indeed, Charli’s love songs on how i’m feeling now are surprisingly complicated. They are nuanced, bringing depth to a trope that has come to feel flat and stale through overuse. On “7 years,” Charli chronicles a past romance, bumps and all. “So hard, things we went through/could have fallen but we only grew,” she sings, understanding that hardship can nurture personal growth. It’s a tender realization that does not come off as overly sappy. On “forever,” Charli expresses love for her partner, but acknowledges that they may not stay together, insisting “I’ll love you forever/even when we’re not together.”

Another pleasing aspect of this album is how it experiments with sound. The manic energy that permeates some of the lyrics extends to the music, which is filled with unpredictable, helter skelter instrumental escapades. The opener, “pink diamond,” is a cacophonous delight, the tune’s bright pop synths fused with distorted, harsh noises that sound industrial. The juxtaposition evokes the inevitable longing to escape a claustrophobic situation: lockdown clashes with thoughts of the free-spirited life.

On the flip side, this adventurousness doesn’t quite come together successfully on such haphazard songs as “party 4 u,” a song in which a dejected Charli throws a shindig for a romantic interest who never shows up. The exercise in self-punishment doesn’t work here: the bridge consists only of Charli’s layered voice, repeating “I only threw this party for you.” Her words are supposed to serve as a sort of pseudo-instrumental, but it is stark to the point of boring.

Aside from those and a few other uninspired moments, how i’m feeling now grows more interesting with each successive listen. Charli has successfully dramatized her impatiently jagged state of mind, supplying an emotionally honest stream of consciousness that suggests what she  (and no doubt many others of her generation) is feeling and thinking in quarantine.

Alex Szeptycki is a student from Charlottesville, Virginia, currently studying at Stanford University. He is majoring in American Studies, with a focus in Contemporary Art and Media. He is currently finishing up his senior year, before looking to pursue a career in writing or the arts.

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