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‘Dirt Femme’: A brave new world for Tove Lo

You’ve probably already met Swedish pop provocateur Tove Lo (pronounced “too-veh loo”). Her artistic thesis statement, “Habits (Stay High),” is a classic for a generation, and she secured some other hits in the middle of the last decade, as both an artist with “Talking Body” and a songwriter, working on Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do.” After this initial commercial success, however, she turned left off the road to pop superstardom, producing darker and more intimate explorations of substance abuse and relationships in her “Lady Wood” album series, which earned Lo this writer’s admiration, though, understandably, less Top 40 airtime. She followed these nocturnal odysseys with 2019’s “Sunshine Kitty,” an album that attempted to soften her narratives’ edges, thereby sacrificing their essential grit. She has since left her major recording label to release music independently, and fortunately, her newest work “Dirt Femme” demonstrates the frankness and songwriting mastery that makes her a unique talent. It also illustrates Lo as an evolving artist, whose increasing ambition doesn’t always bloom here.

The best moments on “Dirt Femme” are when Lo’s exceptional storytelling and pop aspirations align. “No One Dies from Love” is a euphoric, unapologetic synthpop about devastation, which could also be said of all her best work. The lyrics achieve this balance so perfectly, the best explanation is to simply print the chorus:  “No one dies from love / Guess I’ll be the first / Will you remember us or / Are the mem’ries too stained with blood now?” “How Long,” composed for HBO’s “Euphoria,” finds our protagonist pining over slinky, slippery arpeggios as her performance grows increasingly intense, concluding in some of her best vocal work so far. As it builds, though, she carefully changes moods across the song, bringing in digitally distorted background vocals as if the universe itself is taunting her at the end of the second pre-chorus and turning a bit playful in the bridge even as she aches, setting up the final, soaring chorus.

Lo deviates from this successful formula of narratively complex electropop songs to show new facets of herself as an artist as well.  While she’s starred as the anonymous guiding voice through massive dance tracks before, she hasn’t included one of these EDM songs on her albums in a while, and “Call on Me” with SG Lewis is one of the best pure dance songs she’s created yet. “True Romance” is a ballad set over a pulsating, swelling soundscape of synthesizers, a fantasia in which Lo’s narrator falls, terrified, into love, and it is by far the album’s most moving track and one of the highlights of her discography.  “I’m to Blame,” meanwhile, features her ritualistically repeating a heartbreaking verse over swelling acoustic production — a classic guitar and pianos striking at the sides of the stereo — before breaking out with a slamming club drum as the band production continues to blaze. It is anthemic in an unexpected way for her, the sort of song that will surely explode and transfix in concert.

Even the less successful tracks on this album have their earworms and flashes of conceptual genius.  “Attention W****” with Channel Tres is a wounded and entrancing dance track built off a hypnotic, pulsating bassline, and “2 Die 4” has an absolutely riveting pre-chorus, even if its beat drop doesn’t match the song’s energy. “Grapefruit,” another dance cut that is about an unspecified eating disorder, is uncharacteristically guarded in its lyricism, but it still features a hook that burrows its way into the listener. “Suburbia” has a fascinating narrative of a partying protagonist confronting the possibility of motherhood, but this story cannot be captured in a weightless pop song. Lo has already created short films to accompany prior albums, and “Suburbia” is a story best explored in a film or novella where she would have the space to fully capture the intricate situation. Both “Suburbia” and “Grapefruit” are strangely unaffecting, and maybe Lo did not choose the right art form for these narratives — or perhaps these subjects are difficult for her to confront with her full artistic power.

“Dirt Femme” is Tove Lo entering a brave new world as an independent artist, feeling like the first chapter in a grand new adventure for the generationally talented songwriter.  Her storytelling is keener and more ambitious than ever, leading to some of the best material in an already mighty catalog.  And still, it seems she is on the precipice of an even greater and deeper work, as new and powerful topics begin to emerge in this familiar pop world.  There’s something on the horizon for Tove Lo, and there’s no better time to join her on her journey.

Album: “Dirt Femme”

Artist: Tove Lo

Label: Pretty Swede Records / Mtheory

Favorite tracks: “True Romance,” “How Long,” “Call on Me,” “No One Dies from Love”

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

Contact Ayden Kowalski at akowals2@nd.edu.

Categories
Viewpoint

Art, the great balancing act

This past summer, I embarked on the adventure of creating an album. While artistic work is typically idealized as the realization of an unadulterated vision, I found the creative process to be a balancing act between the impulses of the audience and the various inclinations within the artist. If art imitates life, then the creative process is a microcosm of the human balancing act of living — that endless quest for unachievable equilibrium.

The foremost lesson I gained from this process is that authenticity in self-expression is paramount. Whether in the sphere of fashion or filmmaking, poetry or producing beats, one must embrace the styles and subjects that genuinely resonate with them, as there is nothing more powerful than true passion. There are parts of us and our self-expression that are essential and not negotiable, and while it takes good effort to discern these pieces of ours, once we find them, they will be the bedrock of ourselves in society.  Starting with and loving our authentic attributes gives us pride in how we connect with others and peace when others misunderstand or dismiss us. In art, this process does not always lead to autobiography but rather something truly representative of sentiments and interests deep within the creator. Redefining stories about ourselves to be emblematic of ourselves encourages our imaginations to produce new types of stories and the imaginations of the audience members to find what these works mean to them.

The focused work on this single project also allowed me to refine my relationship with work. The two extremes of labor are laziness and perfectionism, and while the former is almost universally condemned, perfectionism is perpetually upheld despite how destructive it truly is. Nothing is perfect, and in art the best ideas usually arrive on their own in a way for which a creator can take limited credit. The idea that enough work can yield success is obviously tantalizing as a promise that all our dreams can come true, but as my dancing abilities can testify, this is not the human experience. Nothing can ever be perfect, but it can be good and finished, which means that we must set a limit with our work, especially because endless time working means neglecting relationships, which sustain and nurture us more than any labor could.  Fighting against my perfectionism meant campaigning for a project people could hear and for the space to prioritize the people around me.

Only the divine can accomplish anything alone, and in the case of this album, I needed the opinions of others to ensure my creation was the best it could be. We are not omniscient, which means we make mistakes, including in the creative process.  Art is communication, and sometimes our messages don’t work. An audience has enough distance from the creation of a work to discern whether it is successful without the positive creator’s bias, and while making this album, my best friends had the respect and love for me to let me know when a piece didn’t accomplish what I hoped it would. There were certain elements of the project, however, on which I wouldn’t compromise — those aforementioned authentic parts — and my listeners were all moved by those aspects of the work. There are times to accept criticism and times to hold true, and it is only through continuous discernment and then presentation of one’s conclusions that one strengthens that muscle of judgment.

I believe the questions art demands of its creators, the same queries we all face, are impossible to answer definitively. Reconciling personal manifestation with social constructions and the pursuit of a product’s success with the search for fulfilling relationships between oneself and others is the labor of at least more than a lifetime. But I think that keeping an open mind throughout my process has brought me closer to that unreachable answer, in the same way a mathematical function approaches but never hits its limit. I am proud of what I have learned in this field experiment of being human and am resolved to stay receptive for the next lesson I get, from wherever it may come.

The views expressed in the Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Ayden Kowalski

Contact Ayden at akowals2@nd.edu