Charli XCX: How I'm Feeling Now review – truly a work of its time

The ‘workaholic party animal’ has, under the glare of social media, put together the ultimate lockdown album
Charli XCX: ‘It’s weird yelling into a mic while my boyfriend does a puzzle’

A level of mystique has long surrounded how musicians bottle their magic. In 2015, PJ Harvey – a fiercely private British artist – exposed the recording of her Hope Six Demolition Project to public view at London’s Somerset House, workshopping the songs behind one-way glass.

Fast-forward five years, and Charli XCX – fiercely public British artist Charlotte Aitchison – has released an album written, recorded, produced and art-directed in the space of a few weeks, with unprecedented levels of real-time scrutiny via social media. The only pre-Covid song here is party4u, a previously unreleased fan favourite.

Not only has How I’m Feeling Now been created at warp speed and under lockdown restrictions – handily the Hertfordshire-raised singer lives lives in Los Angeles with her two managers and her boyfriend, Huck Kwong, who is good with a camera – but the 27-year-old Aitchison has turned the notion of creative show-and-tell up to 11. She has effectively taken ownership of “the lockdown album” (see the release schedule for the next 24 months).

Fan interaction is nothing new. Most stars keep fans engaged through social media, typically teasing snippets of unreleased music. Memes abound.

Aitchison has gone further, establishing an email address for would-be producers to send beats to, airing lyrics-in-progress and screenshots of texts with collaborators. She’s hosted Zoom meetings with fans, posted updates from her bathroom, focus-grouped her output via her socials. On 21 April, Aitchison reported she had cried because she was putting too much pressure on her collaborators. Last Monday, a clip on her Instagram feed demonstrated how she was stitching together vocals (“comping”) for another tune, 7 Years.

If the process has been dizzying to witness – how Aitchison continues to sustain her Apple Music Beats 1 show, interviews, and the personal upkeep of several social feeds alongside music-making is a mystery – the results have been highly effective.

Claws – a hyper-digital earworm – came out a fortnight ago, its title chosen by fans. The playful video was shot on a home green screen (de rigueur among YouTubers). It’s a tune Aitchison might have done anyway with producer Dylan Brady (of 100 Gecs), but more DIY. Surprisingly, given that Aitchison’s posturing tunes often mirror her hard-partying lifestyle, Claws is a love song. “I love, I love, I love everything about you,” she sings.

Watch a video for Claws.

Having clocked up a number of conventional hits a few years ago, Aitchison now specialises in acrylic, outre, influencer club-pop, abetted by producer AG Cook (in Montana with “bad wifi”, but co-exec producer nonetheless). Her celebrated 2019 album, Charli, took some confident strides back towards the mainstream with blowsy tracks like White Mercedes and guests like Haim and Christine and the Queens. Before lockdown, Aitchison told an interviewer that she’d been working on music that felt “very polished, very structured”.

How I’m Feeling Now is light on guests (purposely so) and polish. It returns to the gleeful disruption of her more ear-bleeding work, while piling on sing-song tunes. And if the interactivity of this record is, perhaps, limited to fans passing judgment on artwork, the overriding impression is that How I’m Feeling Now is truly a work of its time – not just the Covid era, with its own Dogme-like parameters – but the always-on feedback loop of output and comments that goes with creative culture now.

Aitchison’s work is explicitly not for everyone; it aggressively foregrounds its own artifice. A song like Detonate calls on arpeggiating synths, 8-bit video game sounds and the bleeping of a detonator. In this corner of club-pop, which takes cues from trap and K-pop, skull-drilling repetition is a feature, not a bug.

Aitchison has never specialised in over-intellectualisation, preferring bangers that live in the giddy moment. Pink Diamond (“I just wanna go real hard”) is all icy drama. Anthems, too, boasts OTT rave stabs (and the faintest impression of Basement Jaxx). It’s a paean to partying, with added self-knowledge. In all this lairiness you find occasional admissions that Aitchison is trying to fill some void. Another song, C2.0, is an ode to how she is missing “her clique”; of all these tracks, it sounds the most thrown-together.

If these songs are more off the cuff than before, nothing here sounds unprofessional. Some lyrics have not exactly been sweated-over – “I love you forever, even when we’re not together,” goes Forever – but they chime with people feeling acutely separated from loved ones.

Watch a video for I Finally Understand.

The song is, of course, another heart emoji to Kwong. It’s not the last. “You love me even when I hate myself, I’m sure,” intones an Auto-Tuned Aitchison on I Finally Understand, whose excellent bouncy beat comes from producer Palmistry; 7 Years is a hydraulic ballad that spans Aitchsion and Kwong’s long on/off affair.

In a Zane Lowe interview, Aitchison remarked that her and Kwong’s relationship had been physically and emotionally distant prior to lockdown. Quarantine had brought them closer. “How do you express that you’re in love with someone 10 different times on an album without just sounding sycophantic?” she joked. If the title flags its own diaristic intentions, How I’m Feeling Now reflects this workaholic party animal’s gratitude for love.

How I’m Feeling Now is out now via Atlantic/Asylum.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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