Sunday, October 30, 2016

album review: 'lady wood' by tove lo

I've had a sinking feeling about this record for the past few weeks now. And believe me, I definitely haven't wanted that, but the misgivings about this record started coming out early and haven't really stopped. 

See, when I first heard Tove Lo in 2014, I was pretty impressed with her debut Queen Of The Clouds. Not a great pop album, but I saw buckets of potential from a fairly smart songwriter with a knack for pop nuance and good hooks. And coupled with a forceful and surprisingly layered performance, I thought Tove Lo could easily build herself a potent pop career and give most of her contemporaries some serious competition. And for a while it seemed like she had some momentum: 'Habits (Stay High)' was huge, 'Talking Body' was a very respectable follow-up, and 'Close', her collaboration with Nick Jonas, grew on me a fair bit. And I really liked Tove Lo's artistic persona: wild, reckless, she pushed her lyrics into some dark territory, even if on some level you wished she could take as many chances with her instrumentation and production, or that her lyrics didn't always show the self-awareness to elevate the flagrant irresponsibility, add more subtext.

But while I initially dug her lead-off single 'Cool Girl', with everything else I learned about her sophomore project the more concerned I got, starting with the incredibly on-the-nose album title. Coupled with the fact that she had kept the same production team and the biggest guest star on this record was Wiz Khalifa, plus the fact that she was going for a double album concept on a record that didn't even crack forty minutes...hate to say it, but it rang as trying too hard to shock or grab people's attention. And sure, that's her prerogative and I generally like that forceful personality, but her lack of greater subtlety meant the play to greater sexuality felt all the more brazen... and while many of her younger fans might not remember, I'm familiar with what happened to Madonna in the early 90s - eventually if you try too hard to shock in this lane, people don't get surprised in the same way.

But maybe I'm being too harsh here, maybe there was a place for Tove Lo's directness in 2016, so I took a long hard look at Lady Wood - what did I find?

Honestly, very little. In fact, the more times I listened through Lady Wood, the more I found the record just not registering and connecting for me on any level - and with a title like that, you'd think it would aim for more provocative material. Instead, it's not even sexually provocative in the way I was expecting, and certainly not provocative when it comes to the actual sound and flow of this record. Now it's not a bad record - I can see chunks of this record becoming dance floor staples in really chic high-end clubs that are trying to be so much cooler than they actually are - but it doesn't stick with me, and for all of the ambition that Queen Of The Clouds showed, this record doesn't really follow through. 

And I'm going to start with the biggest issue right out of the gate: the production and instrumentation. And look, I get there is a place for this sort of desaturated, minimalist darkness that's trying to be understated and sexual - see the night club comparison from earlier - but you'd think in order to anchor these songs you'd have a melodic hook or motif to really showcase something catchy. And yet the vast majority of this album outside of the vocal line barely has melody, even to supplement the grooves! Oh sure, there are some fragments in the bassy swells, or the rubbery fragments smothered in reverb, but outside of the prominent wiry snapping groove of 'True Disaster' that has slightly more prominent synths, or the flat chords of 'Keep It Simple' that gets drowned in dark booming arrhythmic beats, or the chiptune cascades around the edges of the hook on 'Don't Talk About It', or the screechy vocal filters passing as an instrumental solo on 'Flashes', the instrumentation is stunningly barren of more actual tunes to anchor these tracks. And I feel like yet again I'm repeating myself for the hundredth time talking about modern pop: if you don't have that melodic hook in the instrumentation, odds are the song will not stick with the listener on a deeper level. Even a song like 'Vibes' with its acoustic guitar - shocker, I know - gets swallowed up into the chasm of reverb and darkness that stops being imposing or gothic and just becomes tedious after a while. Tove Lo said she was inspired by The Weeknd, and I believe it, but she missed the lesson that The Weeknd and the best of goth acts learned long ago: you can use abrasive or icy or alien textures, but a foundation of melodic songwriting is what keeps the music around! More than anything it feels like a stab at modern trends in pop - especially with the deep house touches of 'Imaginary Friend' - and it sounds incredibly hollow to me.

But I remember thinking a lot of the same thoughts about Queen Of The Clouds, so why did I dig that record more? Well, a significant part of it might be Tove Lo herself. I know she had surgery on her vocal cords and that can tend to mean a change in style, but she went from over-emoting on a cavernous album that gave her all the room in the world... to under-emoting against the same sort of production and occasionally getting lost in the murk. It's actually a little stunning, she's nowhere near as raw or intense as she was on songs like 'Habits (Stay High)', instead a fair bit softer and with a thicker cushion of multi-tracking... and I have to say, when the production is this huge and sonorous, that seems like a real misstep. Now she still has charisma, and on a certain level this sort of restraint does make sense... but it certainly isn't a great fit for vocal production that just like on Queen Of The Clouds feels really uneven and only seems to emphasize how pitchy she or her guest star Joe Janiak are across this record. That leaves Wiz Khalifa... who arguably drops into his most well-constructed, fast-paced, and on topic verse he's put out in years. Seriously, his presence on 'Influence' is way better than what I was expecting, so props to him for stepping up in a way he really didn't on, say, JoJo's comeback project.

But this takes us to the content... and here's the thing: through the course of her two albums Tove Lo has done a remarkably solid job establishing a distinct personality in comparison with many of her peers. A lot of pop stars want to be edgy, but Tove Lo is one of the few where the role feels a tad more authentic and lived in - where Kesha reshaped a party girl aesthetic for parody, Tove Lo is playing it straight for good or ill. Again, it's very reminiscent of The Weeknd: sexually liberated, using and abusing hard drugs and alcohol, and throwing herself into emotions and experiences with a recklessness that normally makes for good melodrama - hell, that's why Queen Of The Clouds worked pretty well in the end. But in any sort of narrative or writing, Lady Wood feels like a shallower, less defined or detailed version of that record - the first half of the album is the hookup, the second half the comedown. And what's all the more frustrating is that I feel we're getting even less of a story this time - more subtext, but less actual text to support it. Take 'Cool Girl' - reportedly inspired by Gone Girl and specifically the 'cool girl' speech within it, it's a song that plays with a lot of sarcasm I'm not convinced the delivery captures in wanting the guy to connect and find something more real, burn together - you know, the only implication that the framing recognizes the larger context from that movie! But that framing inconsistency is at the root of the problem with Lady Wood's writing: at points it wants us to sympathize with her, but 'True Disaster' indicates she's doing it to herself and 'Influence' throws into question her entire narrative, which can really feel like an abdication of responsibility. You definitely get the impression there is some level of existential emptiness here, but instead of actually dealing with any of it, it's either deflected by an 'imaginary friend' or purposefully ignored because she has an image and fame to protect. You'd think that her harder image would make that easier to explore, but maybe all that's a deflection too, another layer of subtext that's resting on increasingly shaky text. That's why 'Vibes' and 'WTF Love Is' and even 'Cool Girl' are frustrating songs: she wants that hard, raw, real connection, but she's built up layers around herself that makes that connection increasingly unlikely. And if they delved into that subtext in any deeper fashion, this could make for a fascinating character study... but the writing is not on that level, especially when the title track is an extended unfunny dick joke. 

And sure, I get that she's not exactly supposed to be sympathetic... but there's no real growth or new evolution for Tove Lo on this record - if anything she seems more entrenched in her bleak hall of mirrors than ever. And when you combine it with underwhelming hooks, production, and delivery, it feels a lot less enticingly reckless in driving heady melodrama than just capricious, irresponsible, and not nearliy as compelling. I can tell that Tove Lo is trying to tap into the same dark vibe and edge as The Weeknd has, but without the more unpleasant undertones, the bitter nihilism and real self-loathing, the more intricate writing and storytelling, without all of it Lady Wood feels hollow and just doesn't stand up all that well. For me it's a 5/10 and a hesitant recommendation at best, definitely not as catchy or interesting as Queen Of The Clouds - hell, on some levels it's hard not to see this as a thematic rehash, especially given how short it is. Tove Lo may have found her lane in pop music, but as much as I was rooting for her, she's not exactly making that lane all that compelling, and given how much high melodrama she was able to mine from this material before, that's the real disappointment.

1 comment:

  1. I never heard of tove lo's songs but god that's an disturbing album cover. I know it's supposed to be sexual or something but to me it's just horrible to look at