In a time of a crisis, there are three ways an artist can go. The first way is to create a work of art that challenges the current ethos and energy of the era, something that inexplicably emits power and vitality through every crevice with its grand understanding of the pulse. The second way is to create a work of art that pacifies and relaxes the tensions of the period, establishing escape and frivolity in the midst of mass confusion. And then there is the third way, which is somewhere happily in between, serving as both a soundboard for contemporary life and an entertaining vacation from it all. At times, that third way can be a very tricky line to toe upon—too much commentary can be suffocating, and too little can seem trite—but on Charli XCX’s fourth studio album, How I’m Feeling Now, that combination is treated with a cool buoyancy that feels incredibly innate.
Completely concocted and recorded in isolation, the album bears the mark of its times. It is anxious and introspective, intimate and universal, a maddening, millennial revelation of bent-up emotions and thoughts now allowed to air out and run free. Through each consecutive track, we can grasp the hastiness and rush of it all, as if Charli was recording faster than she could process her own feelings. Such naked expression is remarkably alive and strident; she is letting down the curtains to reveal not merely the consummate party girl, but one whom has perhaps been lying to herself to keep others happy.
That is not to say How I’m Feeling Now is a moody treatise on the downfall of hedonism. In fact, the album’s overall tendencies are perfectly in step with the rabid decadence that Charli has been lauded for. It is, however, a glimpse into something greater and more fulfilling. Whereas most of her work has been focused on the flimsiness of romance, the futility of love, and the hunt for lust, her latest release formalizes those themes into existential discoveries. There is a fresh maturity when it comes to relationships here, as if she has found something more special than she believed possible and wants to explore the complexities which exist within. It is not a blissed-out portrait of afternoon picnics; it is a layered exploration of what love means in a time of madness.
Yet within that exploration of love, it must be noted that Charli’s emotions are made especially poignant through her vocoder. For half a decade, she has reinterpreted the voice-altering technological device as a tool for ultimate ambiance, allowing us to explode into her futurist atmospheres with clarity and immediacy. Through computerized wails and mechanized coos, her new odes to romance and pleasure radiate a cyborgian majesty lying somewhere between humanity and machine. It is a fantastic, visceral experience, as if reading the confessional diary of a robot, its jilted cries and ecstatic epiphanies shrouded with a clinical distortion.
That decidedly e-girl aesthetic is perhaps why Charli remains such an invigorating figure in Pop. Futurism has always been a subject rife for visual exploitation in the Pop sphere, especially since the turn of the century. But the way Charli bends, molds, and contorts that style constantly gives her an edge and air of prophetic proportions. There is no backwards nostalgia or cherry-picking from the past. Instead, Charli seems to be constantly in a forward direction, never once turning to see what may distract and anchor her on the side. She rules as an internet soothsayer, the pied piper of a future musical scene, placing her heel marks on the moon with ease and dexterity.
That is why How I’m Feeling Now sounds so forward. Not only is it a sign of progression for both Charli the artist and the Pop genre in general. But it is also the clearest example we have of what the kids on other planets in other galaxies will be popping ass to in a hundred years’ time (“C.20”). Oftentimes, music meant for the future feels obvious and particularly un-futuristic. But through each of the album’s eleven tracks, Charli conjures a playlist for proms on Pluto (“Party 4 U”) and malt shops on Mercury (“7 Years”), seamlessly bringing us to stratospheres that have not been discovered yet.
As such, it is not merely her alien vocals that set the mood, but also the explosive productions. Whereas some feel joyous, giddy, and lighter than air (“Detonate”), others feel decidedly bombastic and bulbous (“Anthems”), bludgeoning us in the most serene sense. This mixture provides a generous and satisfying display of the brilliance which Charli’s co-conspirators possess. Since most of them are vital creators from PC Music, How I’m Feeling Now is injected with spellbinding swirls, twirls, and whirls not unlike the joyous spree of midi and video game music. It is fast-paced, it is thrill-seeking, and it is ultimately fun, providing something to always keep your mind thinking or your body tweaking.
Though wrapped in chill cohesion, How I’m Feeling Now’s beautiful looseness may be its lasting impact. It does not feel, in essence, like an album that is designed for corporate reasons. There seems no obligation nor necessity for its existence. And divorced from such expectation, the album becomes the ultimate artistic expression for a time when everything appears to be falling apart. It is as if Charli could not hold it in any longer, as if she had to place the brush on the canvas. In that sense, the album feels patchworked and cut-up, pasted and stapled together; we are witnessing firsthand the artist sitting upon the floor covered in paint. But that is precisely what makes How I’m Feeling Now so unforgettable. It is beautifully imperfect, and yet, so are we.