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Charli XCX
how i’m feeling now Jamie Ryder , May 29th, 2020 08:15

Ripped from her clubland natural habitat, the Pop2 auteur has recorded a lockdown album in six weeks, but how well does how i'm feeling now stand up without its historically unique backstory, asks Jamie Ryder

The club has long been the centre of Charli XCX’s musical world. It is at once her friend and foil, her prime concern and home turf as a writer, its dancefloors and dark corners the abiding backdrop to a range of emotional journeys. For Charli, the rave is where it all happens: the euphoria, the collisions, the sudden flarings of druggy self-discovery.

Then 2020 came along, the year of clubgoers’ nightmares. The coronavirus struck, and Charli was forced to withdraw to her Los Angeles home. Venues were closed, and house parties banned indefinitely. Cut off from her native realm, Charli conceived how i’m feeling now – a new album, expressly quarantine-driven, to be thrown together in just six weeks with production by a host of collaborators: PC Music colleagues AG Cook and Danny L Harle, Bon Iver’s mate BJ Burton, and Dylan Brady of 100 gecs. Diehards delighted at the news that stretches of the work’s construction would be broadcast on Instagram, and, if The Quietus happened to grade musical works on their command of social media engagement, how i’m feeling now would get top marks. Charli was inescapably Online in the runup to release, in myriad permutations: she popped up on Grindr, knob-twisting to Alice Deejay mashups; she released stems from singles for remix purposes as free downloads; she invited fans to create and share artwork for new music and even appear in videos; she ‘performed’ on a virtual stage in Gen Z perennial Minecraft. We’re all stuck indoors, Charli said – let’s do something together. Step on my neck, queen of logging in, fans replied.

Narratives aside for a moment – will how i’m feeling now please your gentle ears? Yes, I’d wager; it sounds mostly pretty good, and fans and new listeners alike will find bops aplenty. Like previous Charli releases, the record takes a cheerful approach to genre; this time around, there are nods to garage, noise, footwork and jungle. These influences are worn lightly, though, and outside of opener ‘pink diamond’ – which leans enthusiastically into chaos, and is properly nasty – we are given nimble allusions to particular scenes and sounds rather than wholehearted explorations. It’s hard not to wonder how things might have gone if this or that aesthetic had been investigated more fully.

Still, it’s never easy to unite such an assortment of references, and how i’m feeling now does an entirely reasonable job. All the tropes here – the bass loop in ‘enemy’, indebted to 80s balladeering; the tickling Lyn Collins break in ‘i finally understand’; the happy hardcore of ‘visions’ – undergo sieving by the Charli coherence nexus. Disparate tics of style are pushed through the proverbial Fisher-Price Baby Shape Sorter (the shape, naturally, being Charli’s face) and emerge rendered or clarified, smoothed-down and shellacked. Picking out what has been Charli-fied, and noting how deftly, is a pleasure.

The record has some clear highs. There’s a fine compound of sweetness and harsh textures on ‘forever’, one of the singles, which combines toothsome melodies with washes of static and gentle drums. Cook is known for his super-processed, GMO production. It’s fun to hear him playing with something a bit crustier, and there’s a pleasing intractability to those little Merzbow shudders. The goofy lyrics of ‘7 years’ are counterbalanced by a truly heroic vocal – one of the album’s stickiest – and the track is a highlight for BJ Burton as a producer, who is otherwise outclassed by his confrères.

Where how i’m feeling now does falter, aside from the odd clunky line, is in its production. Styles are interpreted fluidly, the songs never sound anything less than glossy and full, and Charli can write a gargantuan hook in her sleep. But a certain thrill that longtime listeners have come to expect is missing – a thrill that can be found in the genuinely outré choices in sound design and arrangement which dot the last three Charli XCX albums.

Besides ‘pink diamond’ and the crunchy ‘forever’, how i’m feeling now sticks to fairly well-trodden instrumental ground – not an awful thing in itself, but an anticlimax for fans who bank on a dependable amount of envelope pushing with each new release. Here, there’s not much to be found on par with the sparkling lacunae of ‘2099’ from last year’s self-titled record, or the sheer elemental force of Pop 2’s ‘Delicious’. To enjoy the progression of Charli has always meant enjoying the progression of AG, and he doesn’t step up for the sort of big swings that many will have anticipated here. And given that Charli has trafficked in the deep-fried, glo-fi space between glitch and pop-punk since the beginning of her career, the incorporation of Brady feels like a safe choice, if a no-brainer. He clocks in dutifully, but makes a timid showing for a musician whose best-known work sounds like both members of 3OH!3 entwined around a human-sized anime body pillow. The shadow of SOPHIE – this time absent from the proceedings – looms large. Brady reproduces hallmarks like the telltale kitchen sink snare with competence, but his homage is so unimaginative it reads almost like caricature.

The central problem with the album, then, might be something to do with the masses of lore it has accrued around itself, Katamari-style. If you’re a fan already, all that diegesis is extra juice, a fun twist in Charli’s story: here is a fully-realised pop album, assembled at a breakneck pace under conditions which would challenge any major-label artist. But if that accumulated mythology is ignored or indeed unfamiliar, the work necessarily becomes slightly less exciting. Sans the album’s grand gimmick – the swiftness, the livestreamed lyric-writing, the remixable music videos, the endless Zoom check-ins with fans – and taken in isolation, it’s a mixed listen with a couple of really good songs and a couple that sound a bit deficient in lustre.

The nature of how i’m feeling now’s making certainly does something to presage criticism, and this is unavoidable to an extent. Is it particularly clever to point out that an album made in six weeks sounds rushed, or that an album made under state-ordered lockdown lacks guest features? Not really. But to risk stating the obvious, grading things on a curve based on the circumstances of a given artist is a slippery slope, and a work that is of a discography — especially of one that is already large and very good — has to drive towards something beyond itself to avoid being subsumed amidst its siblings. I’m not sure how i’m feeling now was conceived with that in mind; with, that is, an intended target more precise than a middle finger to the coronavirus, the continuation of work, and the rapid pushing-out of a quarantine album. If how i’m feeling now does stand out among Number 1 Angel, Pop 2 and Charli, it is not as a consequence of inspired production, startling songwriting or some ineffable emotional heft – it’s because it’s the one she made in the bathroom over the weekend with an eye on Twitter.

At its best, Charli’s music leans into the nebulous, peculiarly millennial apprehension that partying is a mere simulacrum of adventure. It reckons with clubbing as a substitute, with our tendency to dramatise and overstate the significance of nights spent hammering away at the brain’s pleasure pathways with friends and tunes and pills, and with the awful ‘Am I wasting my life?’ feeling that strikes halfway through a sesh. With a wink and a perfectly-judged handclap, Charli prods the listener towards a simultaneous contention with the consequences of escapism and an escapist zone of her own. This time, though, we deal with a total lack of egress. "I wanna feel the heat from all the bodies," Charli sings, and it’s touching in its sincerity.

While not life-altering, how i’m feeling now is fun, fast and thoroughly listenable. It’s absorbing as a document from a strange period, and its diaristic, vloggy aspects provide an intriguing peek into artistry under pressure.

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