The Week In Pop

On Blue Lips, Tove Lo Continues Her Fall From The Clouds

One of the world’s greatest pop singer-songwriters seemed to achieve her final form this year by having drunken sex with a muppet in a music video called “Disco Tits.” The song itself is a jam, a poised and minimal dance-floor deconstruction that toggles between spacious staccato piano stabs and synthetic bass throbs that roll with a river’s consistency. The lyrics, delivered in blasé sing-speak and passionate house-diva flutters, are as salacious as we’ve come to expect from Tove Lo; the chorus concludes, “I’m fully charged, nipples are hard, ready to go.” And the video pushes those impulses way past anyone’s idea of good taste with a debauched narrative leading up to the aforementioned human-on-puppet action.

Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson has been forging this path for several years now. She arose out of Stockholm with 2013’s “Habits (Stay High),” still her biggest hit and as good a summary of her ethos as anything since. “Habits” is an outsized tale of coping with heartbreak via every available vice — booze, drugs, junk food, sex voyeurism, soliciting fathers at playgrounds — set to some of the most sharply constructed pop Sweden has to offer. The following year’s debut LP Queen Of The Clouds spawned one other hit (“Talking Body”) and a bunch of other tracks that should have been (“Not On Drugs,” “Moments,” “Timebomb”) and ultimately proved Tove’s colorfully louche formula could work wonders when expanded to full length. It remains one of the finest albums of this decade, pop or otherwise, a giddy celebration of stimulation that you can binge on without suffering hedonism’s usual aftereffects.

Last year’s follow-up Lady Wood was another monument to sparkling artisanal craftsmanship, but it matched Tove’s lurid tales with cold, clinical dance production that reined in some of the prior album’s adventurous spirit, mirroring its author’s own transition into cleaner living. The sleek, burbling, Gone Girl-inspired lead single “Cool Girl” exemplified the album’s priority on controlled cleverness at the expense of the color-splattered endorphin rush that made Queen Of The Clouds such a landmark. The two albums demonstrated the difference between “pop” and “dance-pop” — which, in simplistic terms, boils down to the primacy of melody vs. rhythm — and suggested Tove’s strengths lie more with the former than the latter. Was Lady Wood enough of a letdown to justifying telling Tove Lo too-da-loo? Hardly; she was still the same compelling personality with the same formidable skills. It was just that this time around the cheeky shock value left more of an impression than the music.

For those of us who prefer LP1 over LP2, it was somewhat disappointing to learn LP3, Blue Lips, is billed as Lady Wood Phase II. If Tove wasn’t going to dive headfirst into Queen Of The Clouds euphoria again, I was hoping she would at least continue to land on a third distinct sound next time around, morphing her way through various guises. As it stands, the sequel designation makes a lot of sense, at least until things take a turn near the end of the album. The opening mantra, “You’re the fuckin’ queen of the discotheque,” lets you know what you’re getting into. This latest collection maintains the last one’s sleek, beat-driven aesthetic and yields similarly middling results. The good news is overt raunchiness tends to bring out the best in Tove’s songwriting — or maybe vice versa — and “Disco Tits” is not the only libertine excursion on the tracklist.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” for instance, takes the US military’s old, disavowed policy allowing gays to enlist only if they kept their sexual preference to themselves and repurposes it into a motto for no-consequence hookups: “It’s that I don’t wanna know ya/ And I don’t believe in lies/ Baby we’re so good together/ Does it matter what we hide?” Musically the song is mostly spacious keyboard chords and finger snaps, a landscape in which even the slightest details can (and do) trigger major dynamic shifts. It’s a great showcase for how minimalism can amplify the strengths of a maximalist like Tove under the right circumstances. And it finds room for signature Tove Lo innuendo like “Make me cum, come so alive,” so however you feel about Tove’s shtick, there’s that.

Even more rewarding is the bouncy “Bitches,” an aggro stroke of genius that undergirds a trip-hop rhythm with dubstep bass without sounding as dated as either of those subgenres usually sound circa 2017. You can practically hear Tove strutting across the beat en route to more of the over-the-top theatrics she thrives on: “Why complicate it/ Let me be your guide when you eat my pussy out/ ‘Cause I’ve had one or two/ Yeah, more than you.” If this kind of wink-wink lyrical trifle strikes you as a tad ridiculous, it should because it is. As a songwriter and performer, Tove Lo is never better than when she’s plunging across boundaries via the audaciously outsized character she’s created.

It’s not that spewing crass lyrics is some kind of magic formula for Tove. As Queen Of The Clouds highlight “Timebomb” proved, crude language itself is not the draw, it’s the racing pulse that courses through her most free-spirited songs, as if the music and the lyrics are feeding off each other, egging each other on. That feeling is missing on most of Blue Lips. Neither Tove the character nor Tove the auteur sounds like she’s having fun anymore. Even a line about sitting on somebody’s face can’t shake the squelchy, bouncy “Shivering Gold” out of its mildly satisfying daze. Like many songs here, it’s too catchy and utilitarian to be outright bad, but its overall impression is unremarkable.

Ditto “Struggle,” on which she asks a lover to “fuck some sense into me.” These did-you-hear-what-I-just-said moments can help elevate great songs into the stratosphere — for instance, “If you love me right, we fuck for life” was the exclamation point on the brilliantly constructed “Talking Body” chorus — but often throughout Blue Lips she seems like she’s expecting her eyebrow-raising persona to jolt uninspired songwriting to life. A hook like “The struggle is real when you don’t tell me how you feel” is bound to stick with you, but the song is too staid and formulaic to evoke exhilaration. On the other hand, quote-unquote tasteful tunes like the ultralounge-ready “Shedontknowbutsheknows” and the ’80s-reminiscent “Stranger” don’t fall flat for lack of profanity — they just fall flat. You shouldn’t have to work this hard to get into Tove Lo songs. She is capable of so much more than pleasant radio filler.

Like all Tove Lo albums, Blue Lips is divided into chapters, with the first and second halves subtitled “Light Beams” and “Pitch Black” respectively. After a forgettable duet with Daye Jack called “Romantics,” Side B mostly diverges from the dance-club feel in favor of minimal synth ballads in the mold of Side A’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” This turns out to be the album’s saving grace. “Cycles,” “9th Of October,” “Bad Days,” and closer “Hey, You Got Drugs?” succeed on the strength of her formidable songwriting alone. Constructed with only the slightest window dressing, they rely almost entirely on impeccable melody and infectious personality, both of which Tove enjoys in abundance. It’s a surprisingly rewarding sequence that ultimately renders Blue Lips a distinct iteration of Tove Lo after all.

None of these tracks will grab you like “Disco Tits,” a song that represents Tove’s dance-pop phase at its best, but together they function as a scaled-back version of the virtuoso pop she perfected on her debut. Although the idea of a Tove Lo album carried by midtempo ballads is counterintuitive, given her trajectory so far the twist makes a weird kind of sense. Perhaps having taken one idea to its joyously filthy extreme, the only way forward was to peel back most of the aesthetic trappings and start from scratch, laying bare the warm, beating heart at the core of Tove’s songwriting. Hopefully its pulse picks back up again soon.

Sam Smith
CREDIT: Ruven Afanador

CHART WATCH

Our big question a couple weeks ago was, “Can Sam Smith put up Adele numbers this holiday season?” So far, the answer is no, but then again we haven’t actually crossed the Black Friday threshold yet. In the meantime Smith’s sophomore set The Thrill Of It All debuts with a very healthy 237,000 equivalent album units and 185,000 in pure sales, his best sales week ever and more than enough to secure his first #1 on the Billboard 200. Per Billboard, it’s the seventh biggest debut of the year behind blockbusters by Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Ed Sheeran, Pink, Jay-Z, and Logic. (I think the biggest takeaway from that stat is that Logic had the sixth biggest debut of 2017 and is now on equal footing with Ed Sheeran!)

Maroon 5 slide in at #2 with 122,000 units and 94,000 sales for Red Pill Blues. Both Smith and Maroon 5 benefitting from the now-ubiquitous album/ticket bundling tactic. At #3 remains Chris Brown’s 45-track Heartbreak On A Full Moon, which nabbed 73,000 units in its first full week on the chart. (It debuted on a Tuesday and therefore only tabulated three days of sales and streams last week, probably denying Brown a #1 album; then again, releasing a 45-track LP is kind of cheating, right?)

Blake Shelton’s new Texoma Shore enters at #4 with 63,000 units/55,000 sales. The 21 Savage/Offset/Metro Boomin collab Without Warning is at #5, while Kenny Chesney’s new live album is at #6. Then it’s Kelsea Ballerini with a #7 debut for Unapologetically via 44,000 units/35,000 sales, then Kid Rock at #8 as Sweet Southern Sugar enters with 43,000 units/41,000 sales. Exemplary hip-hop wordsmiths Post Malone and Ed Sheeran round out the top 10.

Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar” is at #1 on the Hot 100 for a fifth straight week, followed once again by Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana” at #2. After Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” at #3 comes Sam Smith’s resurgent “Too Good At Goodbyes” at #4, buoyed to a new peak by the release of Smith’s aforementioned #1 album The Thrill Of It All. Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” is at #5, followed by Logic, Alessia Cara, and Khalid’s “1-800-273-8255″ at #6. Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” slides to #7, while Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” rises to a new #8 high. Maroon 5 and SZA’s “What Lovers Do,” also enjoying a boost from the release of the new Maroon 5 album, climbs to a new #9 high point, becoming SZA’s first top-10 single and the 13th for Maroon 5, Billboard reports. And J Balvin, Willy William, and Beyoncé’s “Mi Gente” falls to #10, closing out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Eminem – “Walk On Water” (Feat. Beyoncé)
Who exhibited the worse judgment here: the aging motormouth rap deity who decided to spend six-plus minutes self-flagellating over maudlin production with no drums, or the legendary diva at the peak of her creative power and influence who let her rapper-mogul husband talk her into being a part of it?

Diplo – “Get It Right” (Feat. MØ)
MØ’s two biggest hits, “Lean On” and “Cold Water,” were actually Major Lazer tracks, and her collaboration with Diplo continues to be fruitful here. “Get It Right” is no masterpiece, but it combines sassy piano-pop verses with a banging post-EDM chorus successfully enough that I wouldn’t mind it creating the illusion of warm weather this winter.

Jennifer Lopez – “Amor, Amor, Amor” (Feat. Wisin)
After “Despacito” and “Mi Gente,” there’s no reason a known quantity like J-Lo can’t score a big hit while singing exclusively in Spanish. “Amor, Amor, Amor” is big and bright and infectious enough to pull it off, too.

Jason Derulo – “Tip Toe” (Feat. French Montana)
Like almost everything these guys touch, “Tip Toe” is exceedingly average. A loop of Derulo singing “Jason Derulo!” followed by French shouting “Montana!” would be more entertaining.

Mariah Carey – “Lil Snowman”
Look, when you recorded “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” the bar for future Christmas recordings is impossibly high, but I wish the Elusive Chanteuse at least sounded like she was trying to clear it. Hopefully she sticks to underrated late-career gems going forward.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Blake Shelton is People’s new Sexiest Man Alive. [People]
  • The Sun claims all five Spice Girls are reportedly working in secret on new retrospective projects, but TMZ reports that Posh is actually not involved. [TMZ]
  • Lil Uzi Vert is releasing Luv Is Rage 2 on cassette via Urban Outfitters with four new bonus tracks. [Billboard]
  • Carrie Underwood is recuperating after falling on the steps outside her house. [Tennessean]
  • In a New York cover story Cardi B says she isn’t in any rush to identify herself as a feminist: “You know what? I’m not even gonna consider myself nothing.” [Vulture]
  • Demi Lovato covered Sam Smith in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. [YouTube]
  • The Chainsmokers’ Drew Taggart was apparently a silent co-writer of Logic, Khalid, & Alessia Cara’s hit “1-800-273-8255.” [Billboard]
  • Coldplay’s Chris Martin will guest star on Modern Family. [THR]
  • Detroit Lions WR Marvin Jones has a recording studio in his home and did a staged audition for the new American Idol. [ESPN]
  • Pink did a Carpool Karaoke. [YouTube]
  • Train frontman Pat Monahan has partnered with winemaker James Foster on a Drops Of Jupiter® wine collection. [PR Newswire]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME: SEXY BLAKE SHELTON EDITION