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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.