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Tove Lo’s frank embrace of her desire for both men and women

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Swedish singer Tove Lo was a star in the US briefly when her debut single “Habits (Stay High)” got to #3 in 2014. That song, which describes a woman numbing herself with casual sex, drinking, and drugs to get over heartbreak, set up the template for Tove Lo’s persona. Her 2017 song “Bitches” served as unofficial competition for Rita Ora’s “Girls.” Both singers are bisexual. But while Ora’s song (which featured Charli XCX, Cardi B, and Bebe Rexha) didn’t seem any more advanced than Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” (Ora only came out in response to a backlash to it), “Bitches” is unapologetic about seeking sexual pleasure with women, with no men in sight. On its chorus, Lo sings, “Bitches, I don’t trust ‘em/ But they give me what I want for the night… But I tell ‘em and they do what I like, why.”

If that chorus could’ve been written by a man describing his pursuit of women, “Bad As the Boys,” the second single from Tove Lo’s latest album “Sunshine Kitty,” flips it around to describe the pain of being used and abandoned by a woman. Inspired by her first crush, Lo sings about her false expectations of kindness and devotion: “I met her in the summer/ Thinking life will get better/ But she’s gone now/ Took my heart and sunk it.”

Scandinavia has loomed large over 21st century pop. Max Martin, who started out as the singer of the ‘80s Swedish hair metal band It’s Alive, transformed into one of the past 25 years’ most popular songwriters and producers, working with the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, and Ariana Grande, among many others. (On “Sunshine Kitty,” he co-wrote Lo’s “Mateo” and “Equally Lost.”) One of his early clients, Robyn, made a classic dance-pop album with “Body Talk” in 2010; her American audience has grown to the point where “Dancing On Your Own” (a song that every gay bar seems obliged to play on an hourly basis) went platinum this year and she can now sell out Madison Garden. The Norwegian singer Sigrid’s “Sucker Punch” is one of 2019’s best pop albums.

Robyn’s music succeeds in large part due to the contrast between icy electronic production and the warmth and emotion of her vocals. The synthesizer melodies running through this album follow suit. “Sunshine Kitty” combines raunchy and bummed-out lyrics with dance tracks. (“Habits” doesn’t actually make sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll sound like much fun; its verses set Lo’s vocals on top of a grimly driving beat, although its chorus has a more upbeat EDM feel.) The production relies on trap percussion, often mixing it with acoustic guitars for a tropical sound. The album closer “Anywhere U Go” brings out electric guitars for the first time.

Lo’s videos are quite witty. The visual for “Bitches” shows the song’s singers (the remix features Charli XCX, Icona Pop, Elliphant, and Alma) teaching a very unconventional couples therapy session involving dog collars and cages. “Glad He’s Gone” opens with a buzzing ringtone and riffs on the omnipresence of phones, taking it to absurd but awesome lengths. In the video’s first half, Lo talks to a friend while dangling from a helicopter, standing on top of a train, and walking through a wide variety of natural landscapes. She kills a man and gets arrested, but don’t worry because she manages to blow up a prison toilet and escape, all while holding her phone.

Lo nods to her influences by singing a duet with Kylie Minogue on “Really don’t like u.” She also includes elements of hip-hop by featuring the Brazilian rapper MC Zaac on “Are U gonna tell her” and Doja Cat (who has an unfortunate history of homophobic tweets) on “Equally Lost.” If her music is intended for an audience that’s largely Anglophone, it also takes into account the fact that it’s reaching the entire globe. The fact that her flirtation with Jax Jones on “Jacques” includes singing “Je m’appelle Tove” isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but MC Zaac performs in Portuguese.

Lo remains frank about her embrace of desire for both men and women. “Glad He’s Gone” and “Bad As the Boys” casually drop references to oral sex and fingering. If the music on “Sunshine Kitty” isn’t groundbreaking, it’s still well-crafted pop. While her team-up with Minogue turned out disappointingly generic, the album’s best songs describe emotions and situations that ring true, supported by powerful songwriting.

TOVE LO | “Sunshine Kitty” | Island Records | Drops Sept. 20 | tove-lo.com

Updated 6:16 pm, September 18, 2019
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