Charli XCX knows how badly we want to go out to brunch, but she also knows we would 100% go partying with our friends if we could have one hour of our normal lives back.
Charlotte Emma Aitchison, known professionally as Charli XCX, has always allowed her audience to artfully indulge in fantasies of debaucherous fun—her music makes room for those moments to be pure. On her newest album “how i’m feeling now,” the artist explores familiar subjects from the world of pop as the escapist fantasies they’ve become.
Aitchison approaches the idea of her new album with signature bluntness; when quarantine is over, you won’t find her reading in a tranquil coffee shop—she’ll be dancing on a table somewhere. This is the intensity with which she undertakes “how i’m feeling now,” released on May 15. In part a departure for the artist, the work is a profound reflection on loneliness and desire in the past, present and future, but carries an intense power-pop disposition that will make for immaculate live material.
The British expat is still reeling from a year of unprecedented success. In 2019, she released her self-titled LP “Charli,” the highly-anticipated successor of her breakout 2017 album “Pop 2.” Then, she embarked on a worldwide tour which stopped in Portland in October before ending in Australia in early February.
The pop star’s community of fans was excited about her trajectory. Aitchison describes herself as a workaholic—while she was perfecting “Charli,” she satiated her devotees with features on singles by other artists in her orbit. She even surprised fans by appearing on a remix of “ringtone” by divisive duo 100 Gecs shortly after the end of her tour. Nobody had any reason to believe she would slow down.
Then, coronavirus began to tear through countries, and the news was dominated by terrifying reports of illness, death and panic.
Following the implementation of lockdown orders in her home state of California, Aitchison announced on April 6 on several social media platforms she would be writing, producing and mixing an album from her home under quarantine. She set the date for May 15, giving herself six weeks to complete an album, despite her previous, “Charli,” taking two years.
She went on to explain that the album, which she soon titled “how i’m feeling now,” would be an interactive, collaborative project that she intended to complete with the help and input of fans. She co-wrote songs with followers on Instagram live and consulted her fans on Twitter when finalizing the album’s tracklist. Most of the significant updates seemed to happen on Zoom, where Aitchison discussed quarantine and the artistic process with celebrity friends and former collaborators.
Despite describing her two prior albums as “feature-heavy,” the artist expressed uncertainties about the technical aspects of teaming up with other musicians remotely. In an early Zoom meeting, she described “how i’m feeling now” as her “most collaborative project,” citing plenty of feedback and inspiration from an adoring fanbase despite a complete lack of appearances by repeat collaborators.
Engagement was a critical part of the process of making “how i’m feeling now.” Aitchison knew she had everything to lose when she cracked open her seamless hit-making formula, but it paid dividends. The artist was able to receive the feedback she needed and offer an album her devoted fanbase was guaranteed to enjoy. Since release, the short-order LP has been received with critical praise.
The album begins with heavy-hitter “pink diamond,” which circulated briefly on Twitter after it was teased in a Zoom meeting for less than 40 seconds. Aitchison seems to make it clear to fans who missed her signature intensity on “Charli” that she did too. As the lyrics meander around the theme of isolation, she laments, “In real life, could the club even handle us?” Over the wild dance instrumental, Aitchison tells her audience that she understands how much people miss having fun, but she doesn’t want to talk about why it feels impossible right now.
Subdued songwriting in the lead single “forever” assures faithful listeners that Aitchison draws clear and thoughtful influences from key areas of her own discography in her new release. Aitchison and producers BJ Burton and AG Cook use pacing as an instrument—it punctuates Charli’s thoughts and moves the song into ballad tempo, showing fans a more emotional and vulnerable side that hasn’t been seen before. This same affected writing works wonders on tracks like “7 years” and “enemy.”
The end of the album delivers the optimism that many seek from pop music, but with all the maudlin yearning anyone could possibly relate to. The artist reminisces on being surrounded by friends in powerhouse “c2.0,” crying out, “I miss them every night” during the driving chorus. In the final track, “visions,” she dwells on the past and the future. In the last few seconds, the Y2K techno-inspired track is distilled to a mechanical whirring. As listeners ponder the end of “how i’m feeling now,” they can only hope that this hyperbolic revved engine is attached to something that’s on its way to a future beyond quarantine—one with more of this type of ultra-personal pop music.
The album’s quintessential track might be its second single, “claws.” In the same way “forever” would be a great fit on “Charli,” “claws” would have made a perfect addition to Aitchison’s hit 2017 album “Pop 2,” which was rife with timeless pop influences and dynamic, innovative production.
Dubbed the world’s most “fully-online pop star” by Pitchfork, the pop magnate proves she’s got her finger on the pulse as a self-described fan of her own music. She continues to lead the curve by showing the music industry that the future can unfold on Twitter, Zoom and Instagram live. Artists can connect with fans in a significant new way while simultaneously foregoing the possibility of delivering work they won’t like by directly involving them in the process of creating it. This generates brand-new types of loyalty and buzz.
The newest release from Charli XCX is thorough and streamlined, and it bears a promise from the artist to keep pushing the envelope. With “how i’m feeling now,” Aitchison continues to define the importance of her work—she establishes that pop stars can be skilled and intelligent, and their music some of the most functional and necessary in our changing world.