Tove Lo Spins Melodrama Into Infectious Tunes on ‘Sunshine Kitty’
Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo is the type of artist who pries open pop parameters, and transcends prescribed roles, demanding redefinition modestly by means of example. She released her 2013 debut album “Queen of the Clouds” after years of working as a songwriter, and emerged already a master of her craft, scoring a sleeper hit with her single “Habits (Stay High).” Originally noted for her dark intimacy and nods to ‘90s grunge, Tove evolved with each album, adopting minimal, electronic influences on 2016’s “Lady Wood,” and assuming a dance-pop form on the following year’s “Blue Lips.” Soon, Tove’s voice had made its way onto songs by Charli XCX, Nick Jonas, Flume, Alesso, and Major Lazer. Her latest album, “Sunshine Kitty,” is her most streamlined pop album to date, funneling all her early restless creativity into pointed, catchy tunes. In recent years, Tove has spoken openly about her bisexuality, and has flaunted a powerful feminine force in pop music, in such undertakings as last year’s remix of “Bitches,” featuring the staggering star power of Charli XCX, Icona Pop, Elliphant and ALMA. Tove’s new album, also full of illustrious features, plays up this angle, with its title a derivation of “pussy power,” and its songs exploring the free range of assumed roles, experiences, and emotions in relationships.
The introductory track, “Pretty Gritty,” samples a voicemail recording over a barebones guitar figure that morphs into a glitchy trip-hop patchwork of synth strings and sliced samples. The tune continues into the lead single “Glad He’s Gone,” but reverts to faint guitar for the first vocal to fill the space. Tove appropriates a melodic snippet from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” but replaces the original lyrics, “don’t know what you’ve got ‘ill it’s gone” with “better off, I’m glad that he’s gone.” Immediately, you should have an idea of the content in store.
Tove draws us into the life of a female friend in a strained relationship. A hip-hop beat drops, and a Q&A session ensues. Tove reminisces about the girls’ nights out and special sisterhood, building up to a celebratory chorus, in which she consoles, “Baby, no tears for that sucker / But never go dry this whole summer.” She keeps the lascivious wordplay coming, going so far as to suggest, “Wanna get over, get under.” It’s a ploy she revisits on “Stay Over,” boasting “I’m like nothing you’ve ever had before,” building to the climactic line, “So why don’t you stay over?” The rest is predictable enough. With no more toxic masculinity, the two girls attain new levels of amorous ecstasy and live happily ever after — or do they?
The following song, “Bad As the Boys,” based on Tove’s first girl crush, finds her singing, “I know she used me for some fun / She was as bad as the boys.” It’s an implicit rebuttal to gender stereotypes. Starting with a vaguely bossa nova beat, and erupting into a mammoth chorus, the track joins Tove with Finnish singer-songwriter ALMA. This time, Tove embraces emotions, asserting, “Big girls cry,“ because “love hurts when it’s fire.” After all, one has to risk heartbreak when giving into seduction. From Tove’s perspective, it’s totally worth it, as she makes clear in “Sweettalk My Heart.” Having ostensibly learned from experience, she takes a new stance, singing, “she encourages her pursuer, “Tell me forever, how can you know? / It doesn’t matter, see as we go.” “Sweet talk that shit,” she goads, in a tone that’s designedly ditzy, self-aware and silly, playing along, and enjoying the attraction and courtship, the dance and the experience.
“Are U Gonna Tell Her?” is a naughty song detailing an infidelity with a casualness that defies relationship conventions. Brazilian singer Mc Zaac adds bits over a dancehall beat, replete with hoots and jokey interjections of “boom, boom, boom,” egging on the romance, and eventually giving Lo pause to consider, “You don’t belong to me / Are you gonna tell her?” Tove goes further to champion one-night stands on “Jacques.” English producer Jax Jones joins her in the chorus, with each paramour exchanging introductions in French, and agreeing readily to spend the night together. Tove’s chorus melody vaguely recalls that of Justin Timberlake’s 2002 single “Rock Your Body,” and a minimal one-two kick and snare give the song a club feel that captures the frivolous, free fun of the situation.
On “Mateo,” Tove sings another killer chorus about wishing to win the fancy of an eponymous casanova, whose name notably appeared in the opening voicemail. She senses that under the facade of the beautiful girls that surround him, he is actually lonely, and she fantasizes about being the special one. A “ba-ba-ba” bit at the end of the chorus makes all the difference, clipped and panned, with the gibberish vocal effectively communicating the nature of Tove’s modus operandi — letting impulse and desire drive you, and enjoying the ride.
Even with this mentality, Tove remains susceptible to the irrationality of desire. In “Come Undone,” she sings, “Plan my future with you / But it’s all in my head,” as if calibrating the urges expressed in “Mateo” to the lessons promulgated in “Bad as the Boys.” Her brief, cascading melody, as she bemoans, “I’m laying in the fire, I’m crying” is beyond infectious, fitting the universality of the accompanying lyrics — they capture the condition in which love ultimately leaves us. Tove articulates it in the title of the next song, “Equally Lost.” With Spanish guitar, syncopated beat of a Caribbean-tinged club hit, and a verse from rapper Doja Cat, Tove puts on a voice of cool composure and blase disregard, singing the titular phrase with whimsical abandon.
Even the most zen-like mindstate becomes fragile when one tackles the great existential questions of life, and we see this happen when Tove contemplates, “Why, why, why / Why did I go to this party?” Spotting an ex-boyfriend with an attractive girl has inspired her song, “Really Don’t Like U.” In the context of a tracklist with songs about both male and female love interests, it would make sense that Tove is jealous of both the guy and the girl. Kylie Minougue joins in the chorus, and adds a whole new character, with her distinctive, effervescent voice adding a lighthearted spirit, implicitly poking fun at the silliness of it all.
There’s an infectious groove soundtracking the party, and persisting into the aftermath, with “Shifted” especially showcasing Tove’s consummate blend of understated R&B sensibilities and distinctly Europop stylings. It’s an empowering song about moving past old flames, with Tove resolving, “I just can’t let it control my life.” On “Mistaken,” over ‘80s synth stylings, she muses, “I think you liked the way she kissed you better.” When she notes, “You know I never want a reason to doubt you,” it comes colored by the worldly experiences recounted in “Are U Gonna Tell Her?” In the chorus lines, “I know I get all up in my head / About it, but it won’t last,” the harmonies flow like concurrent lines of thoughts, and the clipped syllables capture the ephemeral nature of the subject at hand.
Finishing the album, “Anywhere U Go” fits almost-trap beats to jangly guitars, and ends on a decidedly romantic note, with Tove singing, “Come whatever, now or never? / I follow you anywhere you go.” After all the disavowal of attachment, the admission that love is fleeting, the affected stoicism, and the chronicled exploits, Tove circles back to the gospel of idealistic cliché. Then again, it could just be the expression of a temporary mindset, which will imminently give way to a change of heart. Either way, it’s a real feeling, and whether it lasts or not, the choice to end with this focus is telling.
Tove Lo has always stood out for her fearlessly autobiographical content, and “Sunshine Kitty” takes this to a new level. It’s a set of instantly catchy, well-crafted pop songs delivered in a decidedly feminie voice that expresses itself in an unstilted modern vernacular, and marches to the beat of its own drum.
“Sunshine Kitty” is available Sept. 20 on Apple Music.