The lock-down album is something we’ll presumably see more of over the next few months. As far as I’m aware, the first 2020 lock-down record from a major artist is from English pop auteur Charli XCX. Charli, born Charlotte Aitchison, set herself a deadline of five and a half weeks to write, record, and mix a record during self-isolation.
The songs on How I’m Feeling Now often profile the Cambridge-born artist’s lock-down in Los Angeles. Aitchison recently told The Guardian that it was weird “yelling about my relationship into a microphone while my boyfriend’s in the other room, doing a puzzle”. A lot of the lyrics feel like internal monologues, analysing relationships, a stark contrast from her usual brash party-girl persona. Third single ‘I Finally Understand’ is about how enforced togetherness in quarantine brought her and her boyfriend closer together. The songs were previewed during weekly Zoom meetings with fans – sharing demos and early lyrics.
Aitchison has had a temperamental career to date, pulled between her mainstream potential and her experimental tendencies. She wrote the UK number one ‘I Love It’ for Icona Pop while she was still a teenager, and her moody 2013 debut True Romance showed a lot of promise. Aitchison didn’t release an official studio album between 2014’s sophomore effort Sucker and 2019’s Charli, although 2017 mix-tape Pop 2 remains a career highlight. Charli is a microcosm of a somewhat frustrating career, boasting terrific tracks like the Christine and the Queens duet ‘Gone’ and forgettable ones like a limp reworking of ‘I Blame It On Your Love’ that felt like record company meddling.
Making an album quickly has removed the second-guessing that’s negatively impacted Aitchison’s career. She still utilises her frequent collaborator A.G. Cook from PC Music, but the record feels on a much smaller scale than previous efforts; there’s less effort to spread over a range of genres to ensure mass appeal. The lack of eclecticism puts the spotlight on Aitchison’s songwriting – even though the medium is unabashed pop, How I’m Feeling Now feels intimate and personal.
There are hooky pop songs aplenty on How I’m Feeling Now, but they’re largely reliant on vocal melody for their appeal. ‘Forever’ is the most immediate song, while ‘Detonate’ and ‘Enemy’ both frame Aitchison’s vocals among percolating synths. Conversely, there’s less sonic experimentation than usual from a Charli XCX album – the first half of ‘c2.0’ is built around vocal effects before it opens into a lovely song. Perhaps echoing Covid-19 anxiety, closing pieces ‘Anthems’ and ‘Visions’ provide an unsettling conclusion where most records close with a gentle song.
It doesn’t quite top Pop 2 as my favourite Charli XCX record, but the historical context of How I’m Feeling Now may mean that it’s her career legacy.