Tove Lo is the accidental popstar. The Swedish wild child broke-through in 2013 with her megahit Habits (Stay High). The track cracked the top 5 in the US and here in Australia, ushering a new pop hope. Most popstars come ready-made with a sheen and optimism that primes them for commercial success. Lo, however, was already disillusioned. Habits was essentially about drugs and the proceeding album Queen Of The Clouds saw her take on sex, drugs and anxiety in an unusually dark record for the time.
While a number of high profile collaborations with Alesso and Nick Jonas edged her closer to the mainstream, each of her records have been far too explicit to repeat chart success. It’s refreshing to see an artist who has the songwriting chops to storm the charts and yet she trades it for an unfiltered depiction of herself.
Lady Wood with its Wiz Khalifa collab and Ilya production credits made a subtle strike at chart success but by the time she arrived at the very dark Blue Lips, she was making music for herself and herself only. She arrives at her fourth album Sunshine Kitty in a very different pop climate. Body positivity plays against dark, twisted pop on the charts but even still Lo feels too dirty for the charts. She sits in a pocket of pop occupied by Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen and Alma. They’re all artists capable of penning huge tunes but they trade it for self-satisfaction and it makes the music all the more exciting.
Launching her album in New York, Lo looks at ease. She’s made, as the title suggests, the sunniest record of her career. Opening with Glad He’s Gone, it sounds like a radio-hit. One that asks, “did you go down on his birthday” and calls her friend’s boyfriend, “a bitch with some expectation.” It’s this sort of detail that Lo fans have fallen in love with. On the surface, Glad He’s Gone is a crisp, friendly pop track but its songwriting pushes past the mundane and into a world of explicit detail.
Throughout the show, largely made up of songs from the new album, Lo refers to the record as “sunny” and also has a laugh about the bad relationship choices she’s made in the past. Still she maintains she’s “hopefulllll,” as she says singing with one hand cocked in the air. Sunshine Kitty may feel light on its feet but the lyrics aren’t always as content as the music suggests.
Mateo is about an “asshole” that she dated and it soars in the live arena with a piercing chorus. Really don’t like u approaches social anxiety by unfairly laying hate on an ex’s new fling. It’s a song about wanting to leave the club that actually makes you want to stay. It slots in effortlessly next to club cuts like Disco Tits and playful Jax Jones track Jacques. She captures all elements of the club experience over her songs from horniness to sadness. Album highlight Are you gonna tell her? fits in between the two as a sweaty declaration of infidelity.
Disco Tits made Lo fans expect bass-heavy, sparse dance music and she’s delivered with a handful of track on the new album. The straight-forward pop cuts challenge those moments though purely because Lo is such a brilliant pop writer. Mistaken, a collaboration with Taylor Swift and Lorde producer Joel Little, sizzles live thanks to a stark, honest chorus that has her belting, “I think you’re sleeping with me dreaming about her, I hope I’m mistaken.” Stay Over, meanwhile, is a slinky, cascading song that features a magnetic chorus dripping with sexual chemistry.
No other song matches the pop perfection of recent single Sweettalk My Heart. She purposely closes the set on the song, framing it as her next big track. Its searing bridge could cut through a block of wood and its followed by a dancehall-tinged chorus that moves with elongated vocal work. She admits before the song that the relationship she wrote this about is now over but in this moment she’s desperate singing, “I can be yours.” Lo knows her faults and yet her natural passion makes her chase things she knows aren’t good for her. It’s her ability to document these moments so vividly in the constraints of a simple pop song that makes her so brilliant.
Sunshine Kitty may be Lo’s most accessible project yet but she’s lost none of her edge in creating it. She’s a fascinating, unapologetic artist who can manage a global hit if it ever comes her way again but if not, she’s happy crafting sexy, sad, powerful and twisted pop anthems and creating inclusive, charged-up shows.