Thursday, November 23, 2017

album review: 'blue lips' by tove lo it safe to say I had low expectations going into this record?

Because I remember having the feeling that Tove Lo had so much damn promise coming out of Queen Of The Clouds: clearly ambitious with a lot of personality, aiming to touch on darker, more sexual, more nakedly dangerous and reckless material and with the sharp songwriting and knack for pop hooks that made her a hell of a rising talent in 2014... and then two years later all of that went out the window with Lady Wood, the first half of a two-part project that left a lot of listeners wondering whether the second half would be worth the bother. The melodies had been sucked away, the delivery had shoved the melodramatic impulses and intensity into the murk, and despite clearly trying to convey a potent story, the record felt more conceptually underweight than ever. And that makes for an awkward admission: for as many times as I've listened to Lady Wood, even just a year later I don't remember it at all, and that's not a good sign going into the record's 'sequel'.

Now reportedly this was aiming to be a more emotive and expressive record, less of the dark house elements and more straightforward dance pop - hell, if your lead-off single is called 'Disco Tits', it's definitely clear you're even trying for subtlety this time around! But on the flip side, it wasn't as if she switched up her production or writing teams, so there was a very real possibility this record could wind up as barren and swamped out as her last one. But hey, it couldn't get worse than Lady Wood, right?

Well... okay, it's not worse than Lady Wood, but the more listens I gave to Blue Lips the more I seriously questioned how much more I can get out of records like this. Because while this is better than Lady Wood, it's not better than Queen Of The Clouds and more than ever it feels like Tove Lo is recycling the exact same formula on her projects, somehow getting more and more blunt with each release and yet hitting continuing to hit diminishing returns. And for as much as Tove Lo has emphasized in interviews how she's never satisfied, and that sustaining and not growing almost equals failure in her eyes and that's a theme underlying this record - more on this in a bit - when we're retracing the same steps for the third record in a row, it can get harder to support.

And we're going to start with the content this time around, because just like Queen Of The Clouds and Lady Wood, the first half of this record are the string of hookups and the second half is the comedown, where something more real is attempted and it blows up in her face. And to her credit, while the lyrics are not quite as specific or narrative-driven as her debut, they don't quite feel as murky or indistinct as Lady Wood did - mostly because they feel a fair bit less complex, especially on the first half of the record where the bisexual hookups are approached with the sort of straightforward candor that has always been Tove Lo's hallmark. And on the second half of the record, there is at least a shred of some self-awareness on what she's done in the past to compromise or sabotage these relationships, not quite taking responsibility just yet but the seeds are there. At least on 'cycles' she acknowledges the pattern, and is pleading with her partner to disregard it if only to give her a bit more stability... a stability she'll then reject because she can't get out of her own head on 'struggle' or how she 'didn't want a normal kind of love' on the breakup of '9th of october', especially as there is a sense of regret for pulling the trigger and ending it. And in the first sign of real growth, we get the one-two punch of 'bad days' and 'hey you got drugs?', the first a desperate but failed attempt to revive something with a guy who clearly cared, and the latter showing her return to the club... but for as much as the drugs used to provide release, it's an escape that's dulled for her because of the tolerance, and with the fading of old feelings, you get the sense there's finally a way forward. Solid ending, it's easily the best song on the record and shows potential going forward...

And man, I wish it carried more impact, and most of that comes with Tove Lo herself, in writing and singing. I've never had a problem with the more straightforward, reckless sexuality in her writing, but there is a balance in maintaining a sensual appeal and a bluntness that almost feels clinical, and more often than not this record fumbles it. And sure, you could see the subtext on the first half of this record of how the sex is routine so why not be as blunt as possible, but you can tell she's trying to sell these encounters, which makes songs like 'disco tits' and 'shivering gold' and especially 'bitches' hit an oddly desperate, unsexy note. 'bitches' is unquestionably the worst of this, where it's clear she's got some form of contempt for the girls that she can so easily get to sleep with her, and not only is it unconvincing, you get lines like 'dripping in harmony like fifth' and how they have to dry off the seat when they get up - it's not a good sign when Halsey tackled this same territory earlier this year with 'Strangers' and did it better! But then we have to get to the vocals, and I will give Tove Lo points for more emoting on these songs... points I'm taking away immediately because of how pitchy and slapdash her vocal technique can be! Again, I get why she's doing it - show more of a raw, reckless edge - but with her voice placed much closer to the front of the mix, you get every moment of sloppy enunciation and of her peaking in the vocal layering, and it gets grating, especially when she can play in her lower register and sound a lot better!

And that's not even touching on the vocal production, which loves to place pitch-shifted multi-tracking right behind her including chipmunk tones - the only place this even kind of works are the 80s-inspired robotic layers on 'struggle' - but this takes us to the compositions themselves, and... look, again, it's better than Lady Wood, but I'd be lying if I said this record really gripped me on an instrumental level. There is more melody this time around to anchor the hooks, but whenever the sloppily tuned keyboards aren't a faded murmur they trend towards rubbery, atonal shifts that remind me of someone pulling from Arca's soundboard and stumbling hard, especially when you pair it with obvious trap snares and hi-hats. The synths wobble and contort and tend to rely on the underlying beats for some sort of groove, and when the percussion line can't deliver, the record tends to lose momentum. And what baffles me is how inconsistent this is: yes, I'm not crazy about how the vocals peak on 'don't ask don't tell', but at least with the sleigh bells and the growing buzzy rumble at the base of the song, there is momentum, and that's followed by a real guitar line on 'stranger' that actually has some groove, a trend that'll return on 'bad days' and it connects well! What doesn't work nearly as well is all of the clipped pitch-shifting on 'shedon'tknowbutsheknows' that seems to have a sax tone on the bridge but no idea what to do with it, or the wonky tuning on 'shivering gold', or the flattened warps of 'cycles', or the undercooked blockiness of 'bitches'. At least some of the sandier touches on 'romantics' kind of connected against the trap breakdown with way too much pitch-shifting, but then it also featured the vocals of rapper Daye Jack, who has nowhere near the presence of Tove Lo and feels tacked on because they couldn't get Wiz Khalifa again.

And that highlights some of my frustration with this record, because for as much as this record retraces many of the same steps, there are seeds that show how Tove Lo can evolve going forward, and it certainly is more memorable overall - and again, I like having Tove Lo in pop music, she certainly seems to want to push harder. But with less lyrical subtlety, a production team who has twice misunderstood Tove Lo's strengths as a singer, giving her production that's either undercooked experimentation or painfully by-the-numbers, and a general lack of refinement overall without a raw edge, I find records like this hard to recommend. If I do give this a pass, it's an extremely light 6/10 - pretty much entirely for sticking the landing with 'hey you got drugs' - but it's really just for fans at this point. As for me reviewing more of her work... well, I've heard her tell a very similar story three times now. If she switches up, we'll see.

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