While another contender conceivably could arise, it’s a safe bet that Charli XCX’s “How I’m Feeling Now” is the first album by a major artist to be made entirely in COVID-19 quarantine. This hyper-prolific performer, songwriter and producer — who ironically waited nearly five years to release her third official album, last year’s stellar “Charli,” despite dropping two mixtapes and dozens of stray songs during that time — first announced this project on April 6th, giving herself a hard deadline of May 15th. “It’ll be very DIY — I’ll make it from scratch, very indicative of the times we’re in,” she said during a Zoom session with fans. And despite some slightly nervous-sounding emails from her reps in recent weeks saying that advance streams would be arriving later than originally expected, sure enough, there it was in our inbox Thursday morning, 14 hours before it was scheduled to be released to the world.
And what does one of the world’s top pop innovators have to show for her 38 days of work? Plenty. While the album understandably does not include her usual slumber party’s worth of A-list collaborators (“Charli” featured everyone from Lizzo and Haim to Troye Sivan and Christine & the Queens), “How I’m Feeling Now” is very much a continuation of the innovative futurist-pop her discography has followed over the past five years. Beginning with 2016’s “Vroom Vroom” EP, Charli began wholeheartedly embracing the mutant-pop sounds of Sophie and other artists orbiting the PC label: indelible melodies clashing with mechanical noises, sped-up voices and clattering, cacophonous beats. Largely in collaboration with coproducer-cowriter A.G. Cook, she has been exploring the creative limits of pop music with the adventurous mixtapes (“No. 1 Angel” and “Pop 2”) and the less-confrontational but still envelope-pushing “Charli.”
And although the 11-song “How I’m Feeling Now” is characterized a formal album rather than a mixtape — which by definition is looser and more experimental — its actually feels more like the latter than the former. It starts off confrontationally with “Pink Diamond,” a steaming cauldron of jumbled beats, grinding chords, video-game noises and Charli chanting “I just wanna go real hard!” — in other words, a song that would terrify anyone expecting a song like 2014’s smash “Boom Clap” (which is still her biggest hit under her own name, although she co-wrote Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Senorita,” Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and Icona Pop’s “I Love It”).
While there are many delectable pop moments on the album, it’s less reluctant to plunge into the muck than “Charli” was. “Forever” has a multi-tracked, autotuned repetitive melody that lyrically reflects quarantine: “I’ll love you forever — even when we’re not together.” “Detonate” includes masterful vocal manipulation; things speed up with the new wave-flavored “I Finally Understand”; counterintuitively, one of the album’s sweetest melodies is on a song called “Enemy.”
The production — a tag team between Cook, Charli and new collaborator BJ Burton (Bon Iver, Banks, Miley Cyrus, early Lizzo) — is, as usual, a marvel, a shape-shifting mesh of shimmering synthesizers, driving bass, hard beats, swarms of voices and crashing mechanical sounds. But the most prominent new collaborator here is Dylan Brady of pop-deconstructionists 100 Gecs, a musically manic American duo whose debut album (called, naturally, “1000 Gecs”) twists pop into even more challenging, ADD-addled shapes. Of course, the duo is deeply adored by Charli, who performed on their Square Garden virtual concert on Minecraft last month. Brady makes his presence felt on three songs here, particularly with the hyper-autotuned vocals and pulse-racing beats of “c2.0” and the wildly buzzing synth rhythms of “Anthems.”
Considering its short and spontaneous gestation period, “How I’m Feeling Now” is more like a collection of short stories than the novel-scale “Charli” — it’s a challenge to herself, a productive way to fend off stir-craziness during lockdown. But it also shows this deeply talented and creatively restless artist pushing the boundaries of her music practically in real time (which one can do almost literally via her Instagram and Zoom sessions), and giving tantalizing hints of what might come next.