Tuesday, September 24, 2019

album review: 'sunshine kitty' by tove lo

At this point, I'm a little mystified why I'm as eager as I am to look up a new Tove Lo album. 

Seriously, there are other projects that would normally be higher on my list - it's not like I don't have catch-up projects from last week and Tove Lo isn't even the biggest story coming out of this week of releases, be it Blink-182 somehow impressing the longtime fans or the Zac Brown Band delivering an outright catastrophe. And yet my thoughts kept coming back to the fact that of the mainstream and mainstream-adjacent pop acts this decade, she's been among the most ambitious, working to structure narrative-driven concept albums that actually can have some lyrical nuance at their best - I'm not about to forget her closer track 'hey you got drugs?' from her last album Blue Lips that somehow wound up as one of my favourite songs of 2017. But then I remember how damn inconsistent her production is, and how there have been tracts of her albums that feel like they're reaching for more insight than they actually deliver, or how thematically much of her first three albums have been retracing the same burned-out arc, or how she dove so deeply into selling sexuality that it almost has reached parody. I mean, credit to her for owning it as much as she has, but when your albums as of late have been titled Lady Wood, Blue Lips, and Sunshine Kitty, the double entendres are getting played out. But regardless, the reviews seem... well, as inconsistent as ever for her, but I was curious, so what did we get from Sunshine Kitty?

Honestly, this is one of the most depressing types of albums to review, because while I've always been lukewarm on Tove Lo, Sunshine Kitty makes me really question how much she's developed, and at what cost. Not only is there nothing close to her best hits or deep cuts, this might be one of her most slipshod projects to date, mixing her characteristic messiness in the content to composition and production, which sadly sees her backslide in a big way. I'm not sure it's quite as bad as Lady Wood, but it's certainly close, and that's a real disappointment.

And really, I can lay it at the foot of one major issue, one that has always lurked around Tove Lo and her production team but four albums in has become inexcusable: the vocal production and mixing is flat out terrible. I've talked for multiple reviews on how Tove Lo's production team - in this case specifically The Struts duo and Jack & Coke - have fundamentally misunderstood Tove Lo as a dynamic, if haphazard singer who needs space to get raw and loose in contrast with the tighter melodic grooves she prefers, but here it somehow has gotten worse than just peaking in the mix. No, this time they've just turned up the highs on her vocal pickup and allowed those frequencies to blend in with increasingly tinny percussion, which means at best her vocals sound jarringly out of place in a larger, more dynamic mix and at worst actively thin and grating to listen to - I should not have to tell a production team with Grammys under their belt how to use a low-pass filter! And you know its this team because when producers like Shellback or Max Martin or even Joel Little and Ian Kirkpatrick slip in, the mixes tend to be a little better balanced, and while her vocals are still thin against a mix that has the least distinct identity out of any Tove Lo album, it's at least competent pop production. But that might be the most burning indictment of the instrumentation as a whole: competent, but never distinctive or excellent or even tuneful. At it's best, we get the half-chipmunked backing vocals and buttery acoustic guitar on 'Glad He's Gone' off the fizzy but rickety trap beat, or maybe how 'Mateo' relies on the deeper synth for tone even despite the synths letting that film at the top of the mix - hell, the watery knock of 'Anywhere u go' is nothing special, but the desaturated guitar at least anchors something of a hook before the trap knock slides in. Compare that to how badly the vocals and beat are layered against the cycling progression and pitch-shifted vocals on 'Are u gonna tell her?', or how Jax Jones strips any fragment of personality with an even thinner vocal pickup and a pulsating beat that feels left over from the 2014 house scene on 'Jacques' - which doesn't match with anything on the album, for the record - or how 'Come Undone' drowns its sample behind a cushion of painfully cheap trap skitters. And a similar pulsating cheapness permeates 'Really don't like u', a collaboration with Kylie Minogue that sounds like a beat Minogue would have rejected in the mid-90s, but I can at least hear the appeal in comparison to the rickety, slipshod blur of tones on 'Equally Lost', which sounds like everyone tried to make a reggaeton beat and somehow failed!

So my next step here would be to raise serious questions surrounding what budget and connections Tove Lo was trying to leverage to move this project - it's not like she's alone in picking up pop production that sounds cheap in 2019, you can track that pattern all the way to Ariana Grande and thank u, next. The big differences are that a.) Tove Lo's production has always been messy and b.) not in a way that reflects experimentation, closer to the Syco Music problem of just sounding cheap and unflattering and sadly by the numbers. You could swap out some of these beats with any number of b-list and c-list mainstream pop acts - many who have weaker and less expressive voices than Tove Lo - and you wouldn't be able to tell these are made for her... which becomes an even more glaring issue when you look at the writing. Now again, one of the things I've praised Tove Lo for is her sexual provocation and her willingness to tell more of a story across the arc of her album, and to her credit, if there's an arc it's slightly different than her last three projects. And it's fair to think there might be an arc, given the "character" of Mateo as a distant, half-abusive lover crops up a couple of times, first seeming to be an ex of her friend before involving himself with Tove Lo, even as she flits from a girl who dumped her after a summer fling. Now there's an opening for a lot of development storytelling and drama here: falling hard for an emotionally abusive dude who happens to be your friend's ex, dealing with deeply held feelings of inadequacy along the way, when this album is at its best it's trying to drill into the overthought frustration and questions of feelings that would be different for her... 

Which is why it feels utterly bizarre that Tove Lo seems to be shying away from the more interesting drama and provocation that was all over her previous work! The double entendres were oversold before - I remember 'Disco Tits' - but it was something Tove Lo owned as a part of her identity, which is why the lack of detail in her melodrama makes any storytelling lack personality. And then there's the insecurity - which makes sense, given that it was obvious since 'Habits' that there were deeper, underlying issues behind the hard living and by the end of Blue Lips the drug abuse wasn't helping anymore, so she's lost defense mechanisms - but across this album we're getting multiple, underwritten songs full of questioning and self-doubt sold to the point where I had to check to see if Julia Michaels had a writing credit! And if these were songs that had the subtext of 'oh, I hooked up with my best friend's ex and he's now being abusive to me' - because textually that is there through how the intro flows into the opening song and through the song 'Mateo' that features a guy with the same dismissive behavior - that'd be one thing, but it almost seems like these songs were written to be less interesting, or minus even the tangled subtext that at least made Blue Lips and Lady Wood interesting if not good. But what bothers me the most is how this album ends: after a song where she questions how much work she puts into relationships and a song where she examines all her frustrated jealousy, we get the closest thing to a straightforward love song on the album, where she just wants something to click with this guy - right after two songs where you can believably question if she's being gaslit in the same neglectful relationship her friend just went through! She says she hasn't changed, but I remember Tove Lo being wiser than this - maybe desperation lowers standards and exposes vulnerability, but it sure as hell doesn't feel as bright as it was framed, and that bugs me a lot.

And at this point... no, I can't get behind this. Uneven production that has somehow gotten worse, instrumentals that lack a colour, and a thematic arc that is the definition of undercooked, Sunshine Kitty is a real disappointment from Tove Lo. A friend of mine observed that while her writing had developed her production was only regressing, but with this album I can't even say the writing gets there - nor can I call this good. Extremely light 5/10, no recommendation, and even if you're a fan, I can see you finding this a disappointment. And as for Tove Lo going forward... with her waning popularity, I can see her getting dropped from her label, but if she doesn't she needs to get a new team, because this has only gotten worse, and I'd love to see this turn around fast. Eh, we'll see.

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