Charli XCX has long been heralded as a contender for pop music glory. She’s edgier than her counterparts in the industry, and she has a history of releasing popular singles that act as harbingers of records more subtle and precise than their leading tracks.
The singer recently released a somewhat crowd-sourced, homemade new album, “how i’m feeling now” — a record produced entirely in the grips of self-isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Audiences who had long since expected an album that spoke to XCX’s penchant for rebelliousness hoped for their crowned jewel of electric and volatile hyper-pop. Instead, they received an overly produced and repetitive record. The album does not so much make a definitive statement on the genre, as much as it holds listeners over with lukewarm entertainment during an unexpected period of stillness in the music industry.
It’d be wrong to leave out the opinions shared by most reviews of “how i’m feeling now,” which are largely positive. The album is seen as a success in terms of Charli XCX’s trajectory, and a hopeful break from her more commercially popular singles. Relative to the most recent projects in mainstream pop, the album is critically and technically miles beyond what other artists are doing.
And yet, Charli XCX’s “experimental” phase is frustratingly lackluster. Listeners expect sounds that are going to catch them by surprise and redefine the genre in new and ever-exciting ways. Yet the album lacks this creativity, instead relying heavily on sounds that are already overdone in the niche but flooded “hyper-pop” market.
In terms of electronic-based anthems with an edgy, vulnerable feel (a descriptor for nearly 100% of the songs on “how i’m feeling now”), listeners for years have looked to artists like M.I.A. — or even Grimes’ more palatable records — for the genre-defining sound. Charli XCX’s album may be new for her, but unfortunately is tired for listeners who don’t exclusively listen to the top 40 charts.
The record can be split into three distinct categories. There are numerous synth-heavy and chaotic bangers, including “pink diamond” (the first track of the album), “c2.0,” “anthems” and “visions.” Next, the emotional and heavily repetitive ballads: “forever,” “7 years,” “enemy” and “party 4 u.” The last category contains miscellaneous tracks and includes the two songs of merit on the album, “detonate” and “i finally understand,” which elevate, yet do not absolve, the project.
On a record promised to be an odyssey, first impressions set the tone. The track “pink diamond” does so with its sheer mania. It is as noisy as it is chaotic, and while the production is sleek, it also loses appeal about half way through the song. Frenzy can only go on for so long. The repeating line “I just wanna go real hard” starts to ring false as it becomes clear that the techno vibe cannot last throughout the album. That said, “pink diamond” is probably the best out of the bunch in terms of the glitchy, electric dance music featured on the album.
The other three songs do little to elevate the category further. The track “anthems” is an attempt to create a so-called “quarantine banger,” which sounds more like the soundtrack to a bedroom nervous breakdown (à la “The Yellow Wallpaper”) than something to play out loud. Where exploring isolation, loneliness and boundaries could have been a masterclass in lyricism for Charli XCX, she uses the catch-all of “boredom” and “existential crisis” to raise the stakes here, with little deference given to the emotional range of her audience.
The track “visions” is ultimately extraneous to the album and gets lost in the mix of either categorically better or simply noisier tracks of similar quality. Finally, “c2.0” is maximalist in the extreme — it’s overstated at best, and ultimately cacophonous. The overproduced, manic sound of “c2.0” is not genre defining in oddity, merely uncomfortable.
In stark contrast to these explosive tracks, the production gets softer and the lyrics more sentimental when it comes to the second category. Across the board, the four love songs are well-executed (unlike some of the dance tracks). But the songs are simplistic, repetitive and edge on boring as the album goes on.
The second song on the album, “forever,” kicks off the group of more straight-edge pop sounds with a sentimental tone and highly manipulated vocals, which are at varying points cute and overly affected. This would be a decent song if it stood alone, perhaps offering new listeners a more democratic foray into Charli XCX’s demonstrably “edgier” type of pop. Yet it is followed by numerous songs that bring nothing new into the picture.
The third track, “claws,” is painfully repetitive, with superficial lyrics (“I like I like I like everything about you,” repeated throughout the song) and is simply catchy with nothing underneath. Even with a grittier production, “claws” is firmly one-dimensional. “7 years” and “enemy” are more of the same. While the latter attempts to be more vulnerable than its predecessors, its bland vocals, overly repetitive chorus, similar production style and seemingly random voice sampling fails to strike a chord with listeners.
In “7 years”, Charli XCX repeats “I really really love you for life/ Oh yeah, it’s really, really, really, really, really nice,” another missed opportunity for depth. The song “party 4 u,” which is softer and does distinguish itself tone-wise from the other tracks, has the same lack of lyrical maturity. It’s another poetically cheap party song disguised by marginally better production.
The lack of imaginative lyricism in these supposedly more “vulnerable” tunes is an excusable offense for, perhaps, the one catchy pop song on a record. Listeners would expect a project like “how i’m feeling now” — mediated as it is by universal anxieties and tragedies — to take itself seriously enough to bring some gravitas to the collective trauma it attempts to musically dissect.
The themes of strained relationships, isolating whilst in love and other poignant forms of heartbreak could so easily have been explored to create something meaningful. This maturity and depth could have set this album apart from Charli XCX’s previous work and some of her pop contemporaries. Yet, “how i’m feeling now” does the opposite.
The stylings and lyrics are simplistic in their rosiness and naiveté, giving a sheen of noxious pop princess-hood to the project. It’s a mismatch on a scale that discredits Charli XCX’s obvious ability to make good music, as she says and does in nearly 15 minutes of music what should have been encapsulated in a single track.
It would be unfair to avoid giving credit where credit is due. On both “detonate” and “i finally understand,” Charli XCX shows her audience that she does indeed have the musical chops to release songs that are original, personal and endearing.
The song “detonate” is vulnerable and fun, with great contrast between the retro beats and sentimental lyrics. Rather than attempting to fit into some schema of what off-the-rails, hyper-pop should sound like, “detonate” is interesting because it doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, much like the artist herself.
“I finally understand” is another strong pick. The production is clean and crisp, in contrast to the mayhem of many of the other tracks. It is less reliant on the shock value of noisy beats and grating sounds, with a more mature feel overall. Certain lyrical choices do throw the listener off, with confessions woven intermittently such as “i hate myself real bad” sung in a verse, both clichéd and heavy-handed in a song with a deep take on intimacy.
Regardless, both these tracks add value to the record. Yet they are too little, too late. Neither are strong enough to elevate the album into something more elegant and artful. And as a supposedly “experimental” journey into a deeper, more substantial side of the Charli XCX listeners have known for years, the two strong tracks amidst an excess of repetitive and largely unimaginative ones are unconvincing.
“How i’m feeling now” is a great album in the context of an isolation-fueled, creative project — a pit stop, perhaps, on the way to a seminal record. In any other environment, however, it would not have achieved the critical acclaim it apparently has. It is genre defining and transformational only in that it takes on a lens unclaimed by artists who have not yet produced quarantine-inspired music.
With a deeper look, ‘how i’m feeling now’ demonstrates that Charli XCX is not yet creatively mature enough to generate something explicitly new and iconic musically. She simply does not do electro-pop as well as her predecessors in the same genre, and while her spark of talent undoubtedly shines through, originality is everything. That originality is missing from “how i’m feeling now.” If she hopes to define a genre and a generation, she’s going to have to step up her game.