Monday, September 29, 2014

album review: 'queen of the clouds' by tove lo

So as the end of the Billboard year approaches in a few months, many music critics, particularly those of us who cover pop music, are starting to formulate their ending pieces for the year - and like always, this involves many of us looking back to put things in the larger context of history. And inevitably this means placing 2014 in comparison to 2013 and asking the question of what changed?

Because really, there was a lot of change. 2012 saw the indie boom and the death of the club boom, but 2013 was a transitional, cacophonous mess, with the exploding swell of bro-country, the retro-disco revival, rap's return to trap music, and mainstream rock doing precisely nothing on the Hot 100 if your band wasn't named Imagine Dragons. But more specifically, 2013 was the year where pop music adopted some element of self-awareness and began actively criticizing itself, and it led to the breakout success of Macklemore and especially Lorde. And while we really haven't seen many repeats of Macklemore's formula - mostly because a white, socially conscious rapper who has no idea how to properly manage his social conscience is a hard thing to replicate - I knew it was only a matter of time before Lorde's self-awareness would bleed over into mainstream pop music.

And sure enough, it happened. 2014 has been a slicker, intentionally more reserved year than 2013, with the mainstream success of neo-soul, folktronica, and the collapse of bro-country. And sure, the success of Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea, and Taylor Swift meant that straightforward pop wasn't dead, but along the margins you got songs like Sia's 'Chandelier', a song about drinking away one's emptiness that sounded way more desperate than you'd normally hear on the pop charts, a critique of the club boom anthems written from the inside.

Enter Tove Lo, Swedish pop singer-songwriter who has written songs for Icona Pop, Girls Aloud, Cher Lloyd, and Lea Michele before breaking into pop with her own hit 'Habits (Stay High)', an impressively bleak song about Tove Lo self-destructing in drugs, alcohol, and random sexual encounters. And while both 'Habits (Stay High)' and 'Chandelier' play in the same emotional playground of desperate, hyperbolic emptiness, the more personal stakes and greater detail of Tove Lo's song gripped me a fair bit more, and I made sure to pick up her album Queen Of The Clouds, which buzz suggested was fairly ambitious in terms of scope and songwriting. So I gave some attention: what did I find?

Well, this is an interesting case, and the sort of album that always intrigues me, because Queen Of The Clouds by Tove Lo is an album with a solid, if not exactly original album concept that is executed pretty well but definitely shows promising signs for the future. At the very least, Tove Lo definitely shows a lot of ambition in the right way with this record and enough talent in the right places to be the sort of pop star I could come to really like. As it is, I don't quite love Queen Of The Clouds, but I can definitely respect it.

So let's start with Tove Lo, and I have to say, she makes a pretty solid impact as a vocalist. Strident, well-positioned in the mix, bringing a lot of raw-edged charisma to the table, she strikes me as the sort of vocalist who hasn't quite mastered subtlety - more on this in a bit - but has enough personality to mostly make up for it. The one element that really does characterize her voice - and indeed, the entire album - is recklessness, and you can tell she's pushing her voice to the breaking point on multiple tracks, leaving the pitch correction to struggle to pull back the rough edges. And honestly, I'm a little conflicted on this choice: go for rawness and potentially have haphazard vocals, or restrain it and lose the expressive power? Either way, I do quite like her vocal delivery...

And I wish I could say the same for the production and instrumentation. By far the weakest element of this album as a whole, it's a record that shows so much of the modern trends in synthpop that I honestly feel like I'm repeating myself describing the issues. The reverb is overused when it shouldn't be, the melodies are fragmented or barely there at all, and are usually shoved far behind the percussion, and all of it has the slick, polished, somewhat oily gloss of modern pop, which can strip away the expansive reach of the reverb and makes the lack of gripping melodies all the more glaring. Take the opening track 'My Gun', a song that actually has a pretty good textured beat that contrasts solidly with the gunfire on the beat, and the guitar on the chorus isn't bad, but the high spiny synths feel simultaneously too smooth to have impact and yet too fuzzy to fit with the rest of the mix. And that's a tendency that continues throughout the entire album - really quite solid percussion, sparse melodies, and some exasperating vocal effects that only seem to detract from the rest of the song, like the backing vocals on 'Like Em Young' that sound like they're being sung through a cardboard tube. And this happens all across this album, from the great escalating percussion on 'Talking Body' or 'Moments', the pseudo-dubstep vibe on 'The Way That I Am' and 'Not On Drugs', or the subtle keyboard punctuation at the end of the verses on 'Got Love', but for all of the good moments, you have the burbling production on 'Not On Drugs' or the perpetually underweight beats or the fact that this album is so goddamn dreary and lacking in instrumental colour and melody that it really starts to get frustrating. It's what makes 'Timebomb' stand out so well: the song is anchored by a piano melody that's not exactly complex, but the percussion is propulsive and the quick strums on the guitar on the chorus is great - it's the emotional high on this record precisely because of this melodic escalation, and it's a great fit.

Now granted, it could be argued that placing the solitary high at the point was intentional, which takes us to lyrics and themes. Now let's start by saying the premise of this record - the growth from first contact through one night stand to love to heartbreak - is a good one, allowing us to see the whole relationship in microcosm. And just like The Black Keys record Turn Blue released early this year, the framing does a good job setting the scene. The girl runs wild and is not used to consequences thanks to growing up safe and rich as implied by 'Moments', and she connects with a younger guy and they develop a lot of affection for each other before he tries to change her from her wild ways, with the relationship ultimately breaking down due to lack of trust as he dumps her and leaves her an emotional wreck. It's a common story well-framed, and Tove Lo is smart enough to show exactly how self-destructive her behaviour can be in the course of an actual relationship. 

But there are a few problems lyrically that do hamper the album as a whole. A few are purely technical - Tove Lo has a bad habit of repeating syllables to fill up space on her choruses, and the run-on sentences of the verses on 'Timebomb' came across as less stream-of-conscious and more that she couldn't figure out a rhyming meter. But as much as I like 'Timebomb', it's also a song that by its very existence undercuts some of the drama of the record, as it is a song that is fully aware of how disastrous falling in love and building a real relationship is given both of them and yet they're going to do it anyway...and thus, when the relationship inevitably falls apart, it's hard not to look at Tove Lo and say, 'Well, what did you expect?' And while the album does do a good job setting up the conflicts that will ultimately doom this relationship, you never actually see the breakup moment - it's covered in an interlude before the last two songs and that dramatic payoff feels completely undercut. 

It ties back to a fundamental problem with this album, and one that I'm not sure is an intentional choice for commentary or otherwise, and that is that this album is flagrantly irresponsible. When the breakup occurs, Tove Lo tries to get him back on 'Thousand Miles' and then drifts into a drugged-out haze that no longer fulfills her but is the only thing that can numb the pain. In other words, she's right back where she started except heartbroken, and the album's statement about her condition seems muddled. If it's judging her for her reckless behavior - which seems to be implied by the emptiness she feels when partying - then its implicitly placing us on the side of the boyfriend who behaves like a mistrustful dick and is clearly pointed out to be in the wrong. But if flipped the other way - that it's wrong to judge her reckless lifestyle, and the more likely and agreeable moral - she's immediately absolved of all the responsibility for contributing to the relationship fracturing, which also doesn't add up with songs like 'The Way I Am'. It really doesn't help matters when so many of the songs rely more on text than subtext, with a severe lack of subtlety, which makes it look even more fragmented and boils the message down to, 'If you feel you're in love and you choose to run wild, your instincts are wrong because he's going to break your heart and it'll be all his fault.

Ugh, this album frustrates me - which is not to say it isn't good, because it definitely is. There's real raw emotion here which unfortunately feels undercut at every turn either by production or lyrical issues. I do know this record was built upon the story of previous relationships and her life, and it sure as hell is easy to buy that, but simply telling the story without an eye for the message beneath it can lead to some confused implications beneath the surface. And it makes the album tricky to grade because I do respect its ambition and its real successes in crafting a pop album that had the potential to be great and yet is merely good. So I'm thinking a light 7/10 and a recommendation if you want to see a talent in pop music who could really grow as an artist over the next few years. I get the feeling Tove Lo is a name to watch, so let's see what happens.

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