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Charlotte Aitchison is at her best when she works fast.
Nothing illustrates this more than “Claws,” the first single off her newest album as Charli XCX, How I’m Feeling Now, which was released last Friday. Glitchy, grunge-pop for the obsessive indoor love that tends to swell when real danger is suddenly omnipresent, “Claws” is a culmination of everything that Charli XCX does right. The production is dreamy, jittery pop intersecting with industrial clank, the lyrics are saccharine sweet nothings that pivot on a dime toward raunchy like a horny free association exercise — this is “We Didn’t Start The Fire” cadence, but make it crush culture — and, underlying it all, an unflinching vulnerability, the kind that’s impossible to achieve without a wild amount of inner strength, as anyone who has been in an adult relationship knows. Charli does all that in under three minutes, crafting the perfect first track to introduce an album she made in less than two months.
There’s working fast, then there’s nearly superhuman.
Lately, it seems like Charli might be the latter. And, “Claws” is only one song out of eleven — some of which are even better than the lead single. How I’m Feeling Now has been in the world for just about five days at the time of writing this, and already it’s inching its way up in the ranking of her discography. It’s early yet, but this one just might be the best album of her career. It’s also the most emotionally raw album of her discography, and maybe, the happiest, despite it all. She’s shared one of the biggest influences on this release is her longterm long-distance boyfriend moving in with her to wait out quarantine, and how much the physical proximity of the last few months have changed their relationship. If How I’m Feeling Now reflects anything, it’s a relationship in metamorphosis, maturing and deeping in real time.
When making her 2017 “mixtape” Pop 2, Aitchison and the tape’s producer, AG Cook, who shows up again in a big way on Feeling talked at length about how they pieced the entire Pop 2 tape together in just three months, 13 collaborators notwithstanding. Arguably her best work up until last Friday, and objectively a pivotal moment in Charli’s career, that mixtape’s popularity with fans and critics alike seemed to eclipse the painstaking care and years of work that went into Charli, last year’s official album released with plenty of press lead up, flashy music videos, and another full slate of high-profile guests. That isn’t to say Charli wasn’t a triumph in plenty of ways, I still come back to “Gone” and “Click” regularly, but her self-titled inadvertently revealed Charli’s greatest strength — she works best when working quickly, and that sense of immediacy comes through in her newest music. (She’s already compared these two albums herself, dubbing them sisters.)
With that context, the strength of this latest release — an official album this time but one created in just 39 days during isolation due to the pandemic of COVID-19 — is unsurprising in some ways. But it’s still rather astonishing to realize that in the course of six weeks, and while facing the restrictions of limited travel and minimal face-to-face contact, Charli made a better pop album than most stars can come up with when they have access to practically unlimited resources. The resonance of this album is partially due to another element that’s totally different for an XCX release — there isn’t a single guest, most likely another necessary constraint of social distancing guidelines and the speed of release.
Aitchison has always been an ally of LGBTQ artists, and always uses her platform specifically to support lesser-known musicians, yet sometimes the sheer volume of guests on songs and records would distract from the force of Charli herself. How I’m Feeling Now remedies this, too, because as much as she’s historically used her reach to prop up others in the past, there ‘ something special about the single-mindedness of just hearing… Charli. It mimics the self-examination quarantine has forced us all to grapple with, and allows her to open up lyrically like never before.
As an avid user of social media, especially now, Charli has dropped plenty of information about her inspirations for the record, like noting that the careening first song on the album, “Pink Diamond,” was inspired by J. Lo, and everyone but the most casual fans will notice that “c2.0” is a chopped up remix of the Charli standout “Click.” But most of the context listeners need is embedded directly in these songs, which are so emotionally direct it’s almost jarring, at least enough to wake listeners up out of my their relationship self-sabotage.
“Forever” is my personal favorite, an early standout and an aching love song spiked with Imogen Heap-style vocoder that acknowledges the way impermanence is tied up with every kind of love — honeymoon phase gone zen — and “Detonate” is a stark portrait of what it’s like trying to love someone while hating yourself. “Party 4 U” flips the old familiar script of girl-throws-party-to-impress-boy and makes it into an intimate moment shared between two people, while “7 Years” takes a bombastic synth beat and turns it into an anthem of devotion, bringing fans into some of the specifics that Charli’s lengthy relationship has included.
The vast majority of these songs are dedicated to analyzing what it takes to be in love with someone, and how that experience shifts and warps under pressure — whether that be global fame or a global pandemic. But, when it comes to experiencing the sudden, insane rush of pressure that accompanies isolation, uncertainty, and fear, Charli has done the work of synthesizing what life feels like now for all of us, managing to anchor herself in love despite the endless drone of white noise and static of the outside world. Thankfully, she did it quickly enough for us to give it our full attention, while we’re all still stuck inside.
How I’m Feeling Now is out now via Atlantic Records. Get it here.
Charli XCX is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.