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While pop commentators obsessively analyse Taylor Swift’s feminist machinations, Tove Lo, the transgressive Swedish singer, is curiously neglected. However, the NSFW cover art of her third album, BLUE LIPS (Lady Wood Phase II), can’t be overlooked. Its lead single, ‘Disco Tits’ is a house frolic. Yet Tove extols female sexual empowerment, faux rapping, “I’m sweatin’ from head to toe / I’m wet through all my clothes / I’m fully charged, nipples are hard / Ready to go.”
Early on, Tove (real name Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson) gigged as a songwriter-for-hire — joining Max Martin’s camp. She established herself as a cult artist with 2014’s Queen Of The Clouds — home to ‘Habits (Stay High)’. From the outset, Tove wasn’t just another electro-popster airing pretty, superficial and carefree bops. She writes confessionally, albeit figuratively, about sex, drugs and partying. Through her music, Tove is searching for that sweet spot between freedom and self-destruction, her vibe both euphoric and melancholy.
BLUE LIPS arrives as a “companion” to the conceptual Lady Wood, which, tailing the hit ‘Cool Girl’, dropped in October of last year. Again, this album has two parts — ‘LIGHT BEAMS’ and ‘PITCH BLACK’. Like Janelle Monáe, Tove draws out narratives (she’s also sharing short films). But the extent to which these are consequential to her Spotify fans is unclear. More significant are the song themes.
If Tove has a USP, it’s that she compellingly expresses modern female desire. She recently told NME that the title BLUE LIPS signifies “the female version of ‘blue balls’” (with Lady Wood “a female hard-on”). But, beyond that, Tove is renewing the corporeal (body) feminism branded by Madonna in the late ’80s which saw female pop artists revel in their sexuality.
Alas, Madge endured a huge public backlash following 1992’s Erotica (and her Sex coffee table book), having broken one taboo too many. The US icon’s cultural politics divided feminists, some accusing her of complicity in the objectification of women. Still, BLUE LIPS makes Erotica seem demure. And, like Madonna, Tove doesn’t give AF about such prim matters as reputation. (The 30-year-old was an apt choice for the Fifty Shades Darker OST with ‘Lies In The Dark’)
The problem is that Tove’s music hasn’t always been as bold as her lyricism. The Struts, her primary studio cohorts, evidently study chart trends. BLUE LIPS is dominated by the Flume-y melotronica now soooo omnipresent as to be generic. At times, Tove’s sound is almost indistinguishable from Lorde’s, and at other times Sia’s (the guitar-laden anthem ‘Stranger’). That said, BLUE LIPS is her most sonically adventurous album yet.
Dramatically completing the Lady Wood arc, the songs here chart the breakdown of a relationship. The album’s first ‘chapter’, ‘LIGHT BEAMS’, is deceptively blithe. Tove channels The Weeknd, circa Starboy, on ‘Shedontknowbutsheknows’, alluding to infidelity, while ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ could be Yuksek recreating one of Elton John’s piano jams from the ’70s. Tove, who identifies as bisexual, sings of female liaisons on the long-teased ‘bitches’. It has a glam stomp and, astonishingly, the aggression of a hyper-masculine hip-hop banger.
Things take a dark turn in the second chapter, ‘PITCH BLACK’ — Tove crashing after the rush. Wiz Khalifa swaggered up Lady Wood‘s ‘Influence’. This album, the sole feature is Daye Jack, a rising singer/rapper down with Killer Mike, on the trap ‘Romantics’.
Unfortunately, towards the end of BLUE LIPS, the songs, too, falter. The “focus track” ‘Cycles’ is washed-out rave (ironically, it deals with emotional stasis). Other beats sound like they came out of a songwriting camp. Nonetheless, BLUE LIPS closes with the impressive power ballad ‘Hey You Got Drugs?’, produced by Aussie sensation Alex Hope (she was all over Troye Sivan’s Blue Neighbourhood). Even in the realm of polished pop, Tove keeps it raw. Indeed, ‘Hey You Got Drugs?’ is her wrecking (mirror) ball.
‘BLUE LIPS (Lady Wood Phase II)’ is out now.