Pop Culturing: With Her Quarantine-Themed Opus 'How I'm Feeling Now,' Charli XCX Levels Up

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Wednesday May 20, 2020

Charli XCX on the album cover for "How I'm Feeling Now."
Charli XCX on the album cover for "How I'm Feeling Now."  (Source:Twitter / @charli_xcx)

Between 2014 and 2017, Charli XCX almost became the next Lady Gaga. She had released bonafide hits like her Billboard Hot 100 top 10 banger "Boom Clap," from the soundtrack for the tragic teen romance "The Fault in Our Stars." She wrote songs for huge pop stars like Selena Gomez, will.i.am, Blondie, the K-pop group Twice. She was also featured on chart-toppers like Icona Pop's "I Love It," and Iggy Azalea's no. 1 hit "Fancy." But instead of choosing a path where she'd work with producers Max Martin and Pharrell, Charli looked further ahead, stayed online and became the most interesting pop star currently working.

Last week, she released "How I'm Feeling Now," what she's calling her fourth studio album. It arrived on streaming platforms after the British musician announced its conception about six weeks ago on April 6 via a Zoom chat with fans, stressing that it would be a D.Y.I. project with them while she's under lockdown and in quarantine at her Los Angeles home. With 11 songs and a 37-minute runtime, the album, a collaborative effort to be sure, is a masterpiece where Charli makes the most vulnerable and powerful album since Beyonce's 2013 self-titled surprise release. It's an urgent piece of emotional art that finally unifies Charli's ethos and talent into an impressive synthesis of sounds, songwriting and style. And it arrives at a vital moment.

"HIFN" follows her eponymous album from last year — a collaborative effort in a different way as it features several popular artists (Lizzo, HAIM, Christine and the Queens, Kim Petras, Troy Sivan, Sky Fierrea, Cupcake, Big Freedia and more) contributing vocals and felt like, at the time, it was meant to elevate Charli's status in the pop world. It's Charli at her most polished — so much so that the edginess of her music was scrubbed too clean and not everything worked. Her frequent collaborator A.G. Cook, the leader of the internet-dwelling musical collective PC Music, had his signature 00s computer nostalgic sounds bump up against other producers' ideas. A few years before "Charli," she shared the four-track EP "Vroom Vroom" — a maximalist effort from Cook and SOPHIE (another prominent member of PC Music who has had a successful solo career while working with huge names like Madonna) that marked a pivotal career turn for her; a flag signaling that Charli had fully invested in PC Music's chaotically beautiful inorganic sound. In 2017, she released back-to-back mixtapes: the stellar "Number 1 Angel" and the critically acclaimed and fan-adored "Pop 2." Over the release of those four projects, her partnership with Cook grew, morphed and worked out its kinks. On "HIFN," Charli and Cook — both credited as executive producers — unite their best talents while welcoming other sounds from producers, like BJ Burton (a Bon Iver collaborator who is also credited an executive producer), Danny L Harle (who got his start with PC Music as well), Dijon, Palmistry and Dylan Brandy, one half of the mind-bending duo that feels like the logical evolution of PC Music, 100 gecs.

At a time when major-label pop stars are delaying the release of their music — like Lady Gaga, who put off her long-awaited sixth album "Chromatica" a month-and-a-half due to the coronavirus pandemic — Charli is seizing the moment. (Similar to Charli, rising pop star Dua Lipa bumped up the release of her disco-inspired sophomore album "Future Nostalgia" a week back in March.) By directly working with fans — asking them to submit phone footage for music videos and gathering their input on songs by sharing demos to social media and hopping on Zoom chats — Charli has turned her new project into something beautiful and hopeful during a time when most of us are craving any sort of interaction, never mind from a legit pop star. The pandemic is forcing everyone inside and closing us off from family and friends. But Charli is rising to the moment — a moment that feels destined for her —reaching out to her fans to make something that's so of our time.

Though "HIFN" is an impressively made album with music that sounds like it simultaneously comes from both the past and the future, it's untimely successful for being a cathartic and freeing album. Charli has full creative autonomy here and isn't constrained by label meddling. "HIFN" is loud, abrasive, sad, confident and sexy. It's a patchwork of sounds that are stitched together by Charli and Co. where she jumps from genre-to-genre (and sometimes from mico-genre-to-micro-genre) in a matter of seconds, similar to the 100 gecs album "1000 gecs" from last year. It'll give you whiplash where songs are so complex and intricate it's hard to believe it was made in about a month, like on the pulsating and glitchy "Claws," co-produced by gecs' Brady, bounces from love-song to a rave banger that gives way into an eruption of static. To call "HIFN" visceral would be an understatement as a number of tracks are and raw; walls of sound pummel you like on the opener "Pink Diamond," where she sings, "Every single night kinda feels the same I'm a pink diamond/ I need space" as a cacophony of synths and sound effects ram into each other.

"HIFN" defies expectations in many ways; not only that it exists and is excellent from start-to-finish, but the songs themselves are like puzzle pieces arranged in such a way that they pull tricks on what you expect from convention songwriting and producing. Production on "HIFN" is constantly shifting with some tracks initially feel like two or three songs slapped together but careful listening is rewarding as it's revealed how stunningly crafted they are, like "c2.0." That song begins with a sludgy beat but sheds itself to reveal a slick pop song, sounding nothing like the first 90 seconds. It also interpolates Charli's self-titled album cut "Click": "I miss them every night / I miss them by my side / Catch my tears when I cry / My clique on me for life," she sings about the lost days and nights with friends.

Songs you think are about to end go on for another two minutes (like the ethereal and wound-up "Detonate," an album highlight) and songs that you expect to climax collapse inward, like the epic "party 4 u" — the album's best song. It's a lovelorn track full of yearning about throwing a party for a crush who never shows up. It's a simple message (when you're into someone but they don't quite reciprocate those feelings) that's been expressed millions of times throughout the history of pop music - but not quite like this. It opens with an otherworldly synth and builds and builds until it reaches its apex. But instead of a release of sound that you expect, "party 4 u" — the longest song on "HIFN" (nearly 5-minutes) — goes silent and starts from the beginning, becoming one of the most powerful moments on the album.

The track also brings "HIFN" full circle in a profound way. It's a song that's been around for a few years and, after leaking online, it quickly became a fan favorite where people would request it at shows. Charli and A.G. Cook said they always considered putting it on an album but Charli said she was "hesitant...because I like the mythology around certain songs." Nevertheless, Charli said that including "party 4 u" on the album might seem "small and silly" but "it's the time to give something back." Indeed, it's a payoff for those who have invested in the world-building and mythology Charli has created for the last five years as "party 4 u" closes with a live recording from a concert in which fans are requesting the track itself, prior to its official release. It's a beautiful sentiment that propels the album and Charli and her team to a new level of artistry.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.