The Week In Pop

Don’t Take Tove Lo For Granted

One of the best Onion articles ever is headlined like so: “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People.” This was early 2001, more than a year after Manson became a scapegoat for the Columbine massacre and still several months ahead of 9/11. Despite a disputed election that introduced everyone to the term “hanging chads,” America seemed relatively at peace. The gag was that parents had moved on to being deeply concerned about Eminem, and Manson’s Satanic shock-rock shtick was no longer raising eyebrows, much to his dismay. In the article, Manson and his band take their “Boo” tour to Overland Park, Kansas, where they knock on doors hoping to get the same hysterical reactions they used to. Per one fictional stockbroker, “I just stood there thinking, now there’s a boy who tries way too hard. I mean, come on: Homoerotic sacrilege went out in the late ’90s.”

It is possible to become so consistently outrageous that people start to take your provocations for granted and begin to tune you out. I have sometimes been guilty of this with Tove Lo, the Swedish pop singer-songwriter who’ll release her new album Sunshine Kitty tomorrow. When Tove scored her breakthrough hit five years ago with “Habits (Stay High),” she established herself as an artist who relished pushing polite society’s buttons. Her lyrics challenged social mores, presenting her as a hard-partying hedonist who will never stop going in no matter how much it hurts. The rest of her phenomenal debut album Queen Of The Clouds followed suit, its music capturing the agony and ecstasy of a life lived in pursuit of pleasure. This was a set of immaculate songs about life as a hot mess, one that never bothered with euphemism and seemed to delight in letting it all hang out.

Although my own lifestyle as a Christian suburban dad does not significantly overlap with the libertine antics of Queen Of The Clouds, it became my favorite pop album of 2014 on the strength of its impeccable craftsmanship and fearless audacity. Tove’s melodies hit even harder than those blunt lyrics, many of which captured universal human sentiments the way well-drawn characters in a story do. The production elicited that rush that accompanies all the most dynamic music, pop or otherwise. So it was a mild bummer when her subsequent albums fell short of that standard.

It’s not that 2016’s Lady Wood and its 2017 companion Blue Lips were bad, they just weren’t wall-to-wall stellar, and they lost their grip on some of the elements that had made Tove stand out in the first place. She continued to be one of the most talented, unique, consistently rewarding artists in her genre, a pop star who could be depended upon for a handful of bangers every year or two. But those albums’ focus on club beats over synth-powered melodies was not to my preference, and in the absence of those old maximalist thrills, I began to see the lurid wordplay and music video puppet sex as something like Tove Lo’s version of that Onion article about Marilyn Manson. It was as if she’d traded songs for shtick.

I was prepared to be disappointed with Sunshine Kitty too, or at least to dismiss it for the sin of not being Queen Of The Clouds, but I am happy to report that it’s too good to ignore. Musically, her writing is more vibrant than it’s been in years, nimbly merging that meticulous, straightforward, distinctively Swedish approach to pop music with today’s tendencies toward chill vibes and trap beats. There is nothing as viscerally satisfying as “Timebomb” or “Not On Drugs,” but the album also avoids getting lost in the dark corridors Tove’s recent records have often haunted. And as with many artists who being their career with a bang, once you let go of the debut as the be-all, end-all standard of perfection and approach the new music on its own terms, it turns out she remains better at this stuff than almost anybody else in her field.

However, it does help that others in her field stop by to join in the fun. Tove’s appearance on “Out Of My Head,” a revelatory posse cut from Charli XCX’s Pop 2, snapped into focus how singular and sometimes lonely her previous albums sounded. Most of the best songs on Sunshine Kitty are the ones that find her bouncing off another big personality. On the finger-snapper “Bad As The Boys,” on which Tove recounts getting burned by her first girl crush, she’s joined by Finnish rising star ALMA. On the tense ambient electropop track “Really Don’t Like U,” it’s legendary diva Kylie Minogue helping Tove to express her bad vibes toward an ex’s new lover. Doja Cat’s digitally manipulated voice jolts the dembow-inflected “Equally Lost” to life, while Brazilian Paulista funk star MC Zaac proves to be an effective foil amidst the synth ripples of “Are U Gonna Tell Her.” And when she does refocus on the dance floor, as on the techno banger “Jacques” with Jax Jones, she does so with a joie de vivre that’s been lacking on her more recent releases.

Still, the album’s most charming and infectious song belongs to Tove and Tove alone. She wrote opening track and lead single “Glad He’s Gone” with longtime collaborators Shellback and the Struts (the production duo Jakob Jerlström and Ludvig Söderberg, not the UK rock band), and despite their shared history, the song feels like something entirely new in her discography. The warmth of Queen Of The Clouds is back, now accompanied by a newfound gentle tenderness in both sentiment and execution. Hers is the only voice on the track, yet it too is about human connection, exploring a bond that’s more enduring than the one-night stands she usually sings about.

“Glad He’s Gone” is the sound of Tove comforting a friend who’s going through a breakup, as only Tove can: “Bitch, I love you, he never loved you/ He never saw the pretty things in you that I do/ I missed your madness, you’re kinda ratchet/ We used to go out every night, get into bad shit.” If the song is unmistakably Tove in personality, its sound belongs to this moment. The production’s blend of hip-hop drum programming, lite alt-rock guitars, and squiggly neon post-EDM vocal processing adds up to the kind of soft-touch pop music that has thus far dominated the streaming era. Lots of people make songs like this nowadays, but few of them are as magnetic as Tove Lo (and few would have thought to rock a jean jacket with extremely long arms in the music video).

The Sunshine Kitty cover art depicts Tove next to a cartoon cat. She has called it “a play on pussy power,” but the title and iconography run a bit deeper than that: “It ties in with the lynx. This cartoon cat is an extension of me and part of the new music. She’s super cute, but she does stupid shit like getting in fights and getting fucked up. It’s how I feel the album sounds.” I guess I can see that — a packshot that brings together photography and animation a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a good fit for Tove’s hyperreal jams. But even more than that, the cat reminds me that pop stars sometimes have as many lives as felines, and that even when they stumble, the best of them land on their feet.

CREDIT: Simone Joyner/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

Post Malone scores the second biggest album debut of 2019 with Hollywood’s Bleeding this week. Per Billboard, the album accumulated 489,000 equivalent album units — second only to Taylor Swift’s 867,000-unit start for Lover — and sold a career-best 200,000 copies, a figure boosted by album-ticket bundles. The album’s 278,000 streaming equivalent units, which translate to 365.4 million on-demand track streams, amount to the biggest streaming week of 2019 for any album. It’s Posty’s second #1 album following last year’s Beerbongs & Bentleys.

Lover is in at #2 again this week, followed by the #3 debut of Melanie Martinez’s K-12 with 57,000 units/30,000 sales. At #4 through #9 are Young Thug, Lil Tecca, Lizzo, Tool, Billie Eilish, and Lana Del Rey. And entering the chart at #10 with 34,000 units/29,000 sales is the great self-titled debut from country supergroup the Highwomen.

There’s some significant Post Malone action in the Hot 100’s upper reaches this week too, but first things first: Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” holds on to #1 for a third straight week. Per Billboard, it ties Cardi B for the longest-running #1 song by a female rapper. Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita” is at #2.

Next up is the first of four Post Malone songs in the top 10 this week, “Goodbyes” featuring Young Thug, returning to its #3 peak. Posty is at #4 with “Circles” as well, a new peak for that song. His “Take What You Want” with Travis Scott and Ozzy Osbourne is at #8. It’s Posty’s ninth top 10 hit, Scott’s sixth, and Osbourne’s second. The Ozzman also sets a new record for the longest break between top 10 hits at 30 years and three months, beating Dobie Gray’s previous record of 30 years and two months. His only prior visit to the top 10 was the Lita Ford duet “Close My Eyes Forever” in 1989, which also peaked at #8.

The fourth and final Post Malone song in the top 10 is his former #1 “Sunflower” with Swae Lee, which charts at #10 this week. He becomes only the sixth artist to score four simultaneous top 10 singles, following 50 Cent, the Beatles, Drake, Lil Wayne, and T-Pain. Drake holds the record with seven concurrent top 10 hits last year upon the release of Scorpion, while the Beatles are the only other act to land five songs in the top 10; in fact, in 1964, at the height of Beatlemania, the Fab Four monopolized the top five spots on the chart. All 17 songs from Hollywood’s Bleeding are on the Hot 100 this week.

One more notable occurrence in the top 10: UK superstar Lewis Capaldi lands his first top 10 hit in the US with “Someone You Loved,” which rises to a new #9 peak. As for the rest of the top 10 singles, Billie Eilish’s former #1 “Bad Guy” is at #5, Lil Tecca’s “Ran$om” is at #6, and Chris Brown and Drake’s “No Guidance” is at #7. Finally, it seems worth noting that this is the first time in 25 weeks that Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is not in the top 10. Last time there was a top 10 without “Old Town Road” was the chart dated April 6, released on April 1. (For reference, this week’s chart is dated Sept. 21; I assume the future dating is a relic of the print-only era.)

POP FIVE

Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, & Lana Del Rey – “Don’t Call Me Angel”
Weird how this can be a pretty good Ariana Grande song, a merely decent Miley Cyrus song, and a largely forgettable Lana Del Rey song all at once. It’s almost like pop vocalists aren’t actually interchangeable.

Halsey – “Graveyard”
Halsey’s new album Manic isn’t out until 2020, and it apparently won’t include “Nightmare,” the nu-metal-esque single she shared earlier this year. “Nightmare” is audacious and weird, so that’s too bad! It will, however, include her #1 hit “Without Me” even though that song dates back to 2018. “Without Me” is good, so I don’t mind. “Graveyard,” the ballad she chose to accompany her album announcement, is neither audacious nor weird nor above average by any measure, so, bit of a letdown there.

Alicia Keys – “Show Me Love” (Feat. Miguel)
Not good enough to displace the hit from Robyn’s ’90s radio era as the best “Show Me Love” — not even with the help of a “Visual Sonic Experience.”

Hailee Steinfeld – “Afterlife”
Remember in 2013 when every indie band was trying to sound like this? It was marginally enjoyable then, and it remains marginally enjoyable now.

Liam Payne – “Stack It Up” (Feat. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie)
Ed Sheeran wrote this song, and as always, you can tell. The opening line is pretty memorable — “I don’t wanna be broke when I D-I-E/ Wanna be livin’ it up in VIP” — but everything else, from the production down to A Boogie’s faux-Thugger guest verse, is laser-focused on Top 40 radio dominance, and not in a good way. This kind of shit is why people hate pop radio (and why some people with bad taste love pop radio). It just sounds like a conglomeration of 10 other generically catchy songs that have annoyed you before.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • “Today is a good day so here goes,” Sam Smith shared on Instagram. “I’ve decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM.” [Instagram]
  • Adele filed for divorce from her husband Simon Konecki. [Page Six]
  • Rihanna is not pregnant. [TMZ]
  • In a closed court hearing on Wednesday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge reviewed the future of the conservatorship that has controlled Britney Spears for the past 11 years. [WaPo]
  • Céline Dion released three new songs. [Pitchfork]
  • Taylor Swift will be Mega Mentor on the upcoming 17th season of The Voice. [E!]
  • For the 25th anniversary of Friends on Sunday, Megan Trainor will debut a cover of its theme song “I’ll Be There For You” at the Empire State Building. [Rolling Stone]
  • Charli XCX says she’s not going to perform songs from Sucker or True Romance on tour. [Twitter]
  • Billie Eilish is donating proceeds from her Music Midtown set in Atlanta to Planned Parenthood. [Rolling Stone]
  • Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, and Dolly Parton appear on the new covers album by Kristin Chenoweth. [Digital Journal]
  • Selena Gomez executive produced a new Netflix program that follows eight undocumented immigrant families. [YouTube]
  • Katy Perry visited Ellen. [EllenTube]
  • Lil Nas X released a DaBaby remix of “Panini.” [Lil Nas X]
  • Ed Sheeran made a surprise appearance at Khalid’s O2 Arena show. [Metro]
  • Louis Tomlinson released a video for “Kill My Mind.” [YouTube]
  • Ja Rule says he’s going to make a video for each of his songs and re-release all seven of his albums as visual albums. [NME]
  • HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME