Uncontrollable desire is the nucleus of Charli XCX’s music. Where other pop stars use various conceits to distance themselves from their desires – pop feminism, businesswoman excess or ironic self-awareness – Charli leans in.
Her music turns the highs and lows that accompany those moments when one’s desires are denied or fulfilled into cathartic, chaotic synth-pop. Her happiest songs approximate emotional and chemical ecstasy; her saddest, an upsetting death drive rarely articulated in mainstream music. In many ways, she is a traditionalist, following in the steps of ’60s girl groups, such as The Crystals – she is a siren baring her soul, exposing the ugliness of humanity’s drive for love and affection.
Charli’s music has always expressed a deep longing. Her first two albums, 2013’s True Romance and 2014’s Sucker, characterised love as apocalyptic and all-consuming – a strange and eternally unknowable force. It was “nuclear”, “lightning”, “the sun”. Eventually, the nihilism present in these darker songs morphed into gritty hedonism, while the warmth of her early work crystallised into glossy, uncanny synth-pop.
On Charli’s latest records, an absence of love leads to partying (on “Out of My Head”, a single from 2017’s critically acclaimed Pop 2) or joyrides (“Porsche”) or, on occasion, both (“White Mercedes”, “Backseat”).
Friendship provides a salve for the crushing depths of heartbreak and popping a pill can make even the most tragic of nights into something fun.
On Charli, released last year, her eternal themes coalesced into an epic saga of love lost and won again, told through EDM-inflected pop and glitchy experimentalism. Long, dense and featuring more than 20 collaborators, it felt like a musical and thematic endpoint: a deft expression of her high-gloss aesthetic that seemed to nod to the fact that, after a series of records consumed by yearning and loss, the pop star had finally found love.
Charli’s latest record, how i’m feeling now, released on May 15, provides a new beginning for the 27-year-old, finding her at a point in her life defined by success and romantic contentment.
Previously at odds with her record label over their own desire for her to create commercially viable music, Charli’s run of acclaimed and cultishly beloved mixtapes and EPs in the past five years has put her in a position where she appears to have considerable artistic control over the music she is releasing.
Meanwhile, the sadness she once channelled into her music is tempered by her contentment in a relationship with the subject of Charli’s romantic missives. Rather than let herself tread through a fallow period, though, as one might be inclined to after a period of creative and emotional success, Charli gave herself a new challenge: to produce an entire album, including artwork and accompanying music videos, while in Covid-19 quarantine, collaborating with friends and fans via email, Instagram Live and video-conferencing platform Zoom.
It was a strange, high-wire gambit. An album that seemed, upon announcement, as though it could easily slip into curio, a tossed-off waypoint between significant projects. That assessment, in hindsight, was astoundingly off-base because how i’m feeling now is nothing less than a high-water mark of Charli XCX’s career – a complex and hugely accessible work that fearlessly charts new terrain, using the tight artistic constraints of lockdown to produce something strange, profound and indelible.
The thematic inversion that how i’m feeling now presents is inspired: where Charli used to indulge in friendship and partying to make up for love’s absence in her life, she must now take solace in love; in quarantine, hedonism is inaccessible to her.
The bulk of the album, then, is made up of songs that explore the complex dynamics of a stable, long-term relationship. Requited love songs are few and far between in her body of work, but she proves adept at translating the eternal joys of stable romance into her own idiosyncratic style of pop.
“claws”, produced by Dylan Brady of the experimental duo 100 gecs, reduces romance to a hilariously and adorably simple refrain: “I like, I like, I like, I like, I like everything about you.” Similarly, the warm, effervescent “forever” is unequivocal in its emotion: “I will always love you / I’ll love you forever,” Charli sings.
The closest she gets to the tormented entropy of Pop 2 or Charli is on “i finally understand”, a song about the terror that comes with realising how all-consuming love can be. These songs are simple, but not simplistic – she is making music about the sheer overwhelming joy of true love – similarly, they are not subtle or nuanced. Emotions such as these rarely are. If pop music were subtle, it wouldn’t feel as true to life as it often does.
Along with how i’m feeling now’s change in tone comes a change in form and style. B. J. Burton, a collaborator of Bon Iver, produced how i’m feeling now, alongside Charli’s long-time creative director, A. G. Cook, and Burton’s presence seems to have sanded down the glassy edges of Cook’s aesthetic without anaesthetising it. The harsh autotune of Charli’s previous records is replaced here with more naturalistic vocal processing: vocoder harmonies are ever-present, giving the album a welcome softness and warmth.
On Charli, the structure and cadence of many tracks were drawn from rap; on how i’m feeling now, the songs are warm and melodic, playing with traditional pop forms.
The melodies of songs such as “detonate” and “7 years” are dynamic and fluid in a way more reminiscent of the singles from True Romance and Sucker than anything Charli has made in the past few years. The truth of her oeuvre is that, while she is undoubtedly one of pop’s best melody writers, recent history has seen her eschew that role, choosing instead to play with texture and rhythm. It is a joy to see her return to pop traditionalism in subtle ways, without sacrificing the experimental edge of her past few records.
As ever, Charli XCX’s music is at its best when channelling some kind of outsized desire. On how i’m feeling now that comes in the form of “anthems”, a song about missing your friends during quarantine.
Despite its utterly specific premise, Charli has written few songs that feel as universally resonant. “All my friends are invisible / Twenty-four seven, miss ’em all / I might cry like a waterfall / I feel afraid when I feel alone,” she sings.
This is a song about social distancing, sure, but it also functions as a sweet and powerful ode to friendship and memory-making. Precious few artists have made music about the casually profound power of platonic relationships, but “anthems” already feels like it’s setting a high bar for the genre, distilling the yearning so many of us are feeling during quarantine into brilliantly evocative shorthand: “I want anthems, late nights, my friends, New York.”
We are living in a world defined by political and social entropy, and “anthems” feels like proof that there are few better than Charli to soundtrack it. She knows, better than anyone, that solace often comes from leaning into the chaos.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2020 as "Charli’s angles".
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