If there is a single impression that UK pop singer Charlotte Aitchison has consistently given off throughout her career—and it’s really this that has made her such a dynamic presence on record— it’s that she lives to make music. From her early mixtapes to her triumphant third album, the shimmering party-girl persona she cultivated promised that her life was one unending party and the cost of admission was equal to lending an ear. So perhaps it’s no surprise that in the XCX household, despite the lockdown, the party continues.
Rumours of a new quarantine themed project began circulating on twitter early in April, with Charli confirming them in a zoom conference with fans on April 6th, where announced her ambitious 6-week schedule for the May 15th release of How I’m Feeling Now.
It’s certainly a faster turnaround that one might have expected. Her last studio album released in September of 2019, almost five years after her previous studio album. She released an abundance of material in that intervening period, with two fantastic mixtapes on which she established her new futuristic bubblegum-bass style, but another full studio album seemed far off given how long she laboured over her last.
However, once her touring schedule was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, tiding her fans over from the safety of her bedroom seemingly became her number one priority. Charli has remained in close contact with fans requesting feedback on song topics, posting lyrics, instrumentals and planned artworks alongside the three singles.
This DIY recording and promotion process complements the raw, intimate aesthetics and themes of the album. All of the revealing, sexy and playful artwork and videos were shot by either Aitchison and her boyfriend or her fans, resulting in the heart-warming compilation video for the album’s first single “Forever”. This song set up the style and themes that define the album, with a rougher texture and imagery of separation and long-term affection. It’s a reassuring and optimistic song infused with sadness and regret and is supported by an incredibly catchy melody on the verses, singing of how distance and time apart won’t weaken our bonds of togetherness.
The second single “Claws” was a much cheekier, more playful, piece. The simple hook: “I like-I like-I like-I like everything about you” is also undeniably sticky, and plays beautifully off the distorted, noisy production by producer Dylan Brady of 100 Gecs.
Given the circumstances of the album’s creation, it was hard to know what to expect of the other tracks. Charli has at least a full album’s worth of unreleased singles from leaks or live performances floating around on the internet, and one of those “Party 4 U” does make an appearance here. However, this is no loose collection of demos or B-sides with all but two of the tracks original compositions and stunningly high quality and unity.
Following in the pacing template set by her last record, the tracklist has an impeccable flow. Opening with “Pink Diamond”, a riotous industrial banger, before progressing into a series of achingly sentimental and nostalgic tracks constituting an intimate expression of tender and undying affection for her loved ones. On tracks like “7 years”, “Detonate” and “Enemy”, emotions of love and affection are delivered in such a raw, unrefined manner that the noisy electronic production suits her processed vocals perfectly—describing her love like a bomb with the potential to destroy her and anyone it touches. It’s the perfect style for the current paradigm: starved for affection and constantly denied intimacy for your own good, to which Charli adds references in the lyrics to the new normals that have come to define lockdown living.
The lyrics of “Pink Diamond” perfectly marry the tracks club banger energy to the albums quarantine theme, with Charli singing of her confinement, interactions through technology, and witty, ironic asides. “7 Years” is a tender, loving ode to her significant other and the way their relationship has progressed over the years and particularly over the last weeks. There are references to the current situation: “I made my house a home with you” but also lines that could also apply to the fans who were such an integral part of the creation of this album. The song offsets it’s heartfelt and sentimental affirmations of love with playful, funny ad-libs. Even after many replays her delivery of the line “oh yeah it’s really really really really nice (it’s really nice)” still makes me laugh.
“I Finally Understand” is probably the most radio-friendly and accessible song on the album with a low-key electronica instrumental and rolling bass-line that tones down the industrial noise elements for a more tempered groove. As the title suggests it acts as a resolution point in the album, allaying the fears of rejection that emerge on tracks like “Enemy”.
Possibly the most moving song on the album though is surprisingly “c2.0”, a remix of her earlier song “Click”, with new verses to replace the guest artists Slayyter, Kim Petras and Tommy Cash. Appropriately this version is now about separation from the clique the previous track so celebrated. It’s a past tense version of the original song with an added ‘I miss them’ refrain that’s such a perfect example of why Charli’s songwriting works so well. It’s so direct and unrefined, guileless and innocent. It’s an immediate punch of whatever she’s feeling, however complicated the raw emotion, whether it’s house party euphoria or housebound yearning.
Although an older song, “Party 4 U” perfectly follows up the narrative of “c2.0” with the slow, melancholic instrumental bringing the sadness out of the lyrics: a five-minute build-up to a party that’s cancelled. However, the energy does playoff, just not in an expected way. The next song Anthems kicks off with an EDM build-up, gearing up for an explosive club rager before Charli drops in with a deafening “I’M SO BORED!” She then follows up with a song clearly inspired by the current predicament. Many songs have tried to perfectly capture the global sense of house arrest frustration, but Charli may really have done it. The lyrics are cuttingly observed and relatable and the delivery totally cathartic and unrestrained. It’s the Avant-bubblegum-punk quarantine anthem the world needed.
The album Charli and regular producer A.G. Cook have put together is a note-perfect conceptual meditation on the frustrated affections of quarantine, delivered with all the gusto and heartfelt emotion one could ask. As an album experience, it’s close to her best and is undoubtedly her most personal work yet. The small skit on “Enemy” describing the depth of her love for her significant other is possibly the most moving moment in her entire discography. There’s so much feeling in her voice as she describes how being quarantined together has changed her relationship for the better. It’s a tender, raw and intimate project with the scrappy emotional bombast of Pop2 and the elegant, finely groomed pop decadence of the self-titled.