In the early 2010s, UK pop artist Charli XCX rode the pop-trend wave, featuring on Icona Pop’s smash-hit 'I Love It' as well as hopping on the chorus of Iggy Azalea’s 'Fancy'. Her albums did well commercially, but provided the listener with little more than generic pop songs. Circa 2015, however, Charli started working with acclaimed avant-pop producer Sophie (credited on projects by Madonna, Vince Staples and Flume among others) and began developing a new image and a fresher, more experimental sound. After several EPs and a few hit singles, Charli dropped the critically acclaimed LP Charli in 2019 and immediately announced herself as an unmissable artist in the realm of pop music, demonstrating an artistic evolution unmatched by *anyone* in the pop world.
For the music industry in particular, 2020 has been one of the most bizarre years on record. Tours axed, albums delayed, recording sessions halted, etc. The entire world, no matter what industry, has suffered a great deal, but the music world seems so empty. Making a full length studio album in around six weeks isn't an unrealistic time-frame for most artists, but prior to those six weeks of recording there are vast amounts of writing sessions and pre-production. Writing and producing an album in six weeks, then, under lockdown from a house with only a laptop should sound like an incredibly impressive achievement in the pop sphere.
Charli XCX has done just that.
how i’m feeling now is Charli’s sixth full-length LP, and at the surface level you might be thinking, "Oh wow, another pop record from another pop artist." But no. how i’m feeling now is the most raw realisation of life under lockdown that this period has produced. This album was created from start to finish in six weeks: eleven songs, just shy of forty minutes. And no, it isn’t a topical, clout-chasing, trend-hopping album. This might be Charli’s best yet.
Kicking off the record is the relentless 'pink diamond'. The piercing synth stabs are harsh and in your-face, perfectly setting the tone for the whole theme of this album. Drum and bass tinged break beats smash away in the background, while Charli’s half-spoken/half-rapped delivery goes real hard (get it). The beat switches are more aggressive than the ones before them, and at just over two-minutes in runtime, 'pink diamond' is like being in a wind tunnel. It is a perfect opener, braggadocios in lyricism and unyielding in instrumentation. It transitions nicely into 'forever', one of my personal highlights. Slowing the pace, 'forever' retains the nasty synth sounds but this time having melody as the focus rather than ruthless beat switches. Probably the ‘pop-iest’ track on here, the tune’s hook is sweet and catchy, highlighting Charli’s experience as a popstar with a knack for an earworm. The production is loud and wide, but still retains melody; a perfect middle-ground between Charli’s experimental side and her pop side. Some of the instrumentation continues with the distorted, frenetic energy heard in pink diamond, and Charli’s vocal performance is excellent.
Second single prior to release, 'claws', is straight-up ear candy. The "I like, I like" hook is guaranteed to get lodged in your head, and the beat, while still embracing the characteristics of the rest of the album, still feels new and a change from previous tracks. Trap-influenced hi-hats layered with industrial percussion and a punchy kick drive this song forward. 'claws' might be one of the most synth pop influenced cuts yet; the synth runs towards the end of the track straight away reminded me of OMD’s 'Enola Gay'. Fifth track, 'detonate,' has clear glitch-hop influence with constant panning, fast tremolo sounds and heavily bit-crushed background layers. The bridge is the highlight of the track, with Charli’s chopped up vocals darting between the left and right speakers. And the outro comes out of nowhere, building up to a drop that never comes.
The latter of the 2010s were dominated by the SoundCloud emo-rap craze. The instrumentation of 'enemy' has clearly borrowed ideas from that era with its dark chords and reverb tinted snare samples, but the autotune on Charli’s voice is tasteful, not falling into the usual camp of "autotune soaked vocals are trendy therefore we must do it." It fits the track, and the vocals almost sound distant in parts. 'i finally understand' trundles along with a stripped back beat, maybe as tribute to Charli’s humble beginnings singing at warehouse raves and parties. The track doesn’t vary too much, but the vocal production is absolutely stellar. Layered harmonies, when done well, are always a winner for me, and this track nails it. 'anthems' once again feels like a flashback to eras earlier this decade, but still ﬁnds a way for Charli to put her watermark on it. The synth riff is like something out an EDM track and the beat has dubstep influence, but for some reason it still feels fresh and exciting. Its loud, its distorted and it is straight-up fun.
Softer cut 'party 4 u' is a nice breather on the track listing. The instrumentation is still exciting, but this time sends the filthy beats to the bench. It is a great contrast to the rest of the album, and the calmer vocal delivery works perfectly. '7 years' has one of my favourite vocal performances from Charli on the record. The falsetto, adlibs, scatting, and vocal-synth harmonies are absolutely wonderful. The beat is full and packed with punchy samples, but still leaves Charli’s vocals to be the highlight here.
Closing track 'visions' loops a pummelling trance kick throughout with techno and deep house synth layers, creating layer upon layer of unnerving sounds. It feels like the twin to pink diamond with its immense production and pounding drums. The distortion and dissonance feels like it wouldn’t be out of place on a Death Grips project. Yes, I just compared the artist who made 'Boom Clap' to fucking Death Grips.
how i’m feeling now is one of the best pop records to come out this year. Every track shares a common denominator while still feeling fresh and carrying its own unique characteristics. The production is hellish and ferocious, and while the influences are clear, it's not derivative. In six weeks, Charli XCX has created a cohesive record that journeys through synth-pop, electropop, glitch-hop, and straight up pop music. And the fact it was made in six weeks, from self isolation, makes this record even more impressive. I feel that the remote recording process used by Charli and her team is foreshadowing what might become the norm in modern music. how i’m feeling now is an honest take on life during lockdown, showing Charli at her most vulnerable. The lyrics are raw and open, and paired with the huge instrumentation makes this album an absolute joy to listen to.
- 8.2 -
'forever', 'pink diamond', 'enemy'
James Mellen is a very bored student in his final year of compulsory education, waiting to study music production and performance at degree level. He is passionate about music, guitars and music. He also watches films sometimes.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in South Wales.