Blue Lips, Tove Lo's second album in her Lady Wood series of records, is an example of great electronic pop: dark and introspective while also hopeful, and a lot of fun. There's something else: it's the album Taylor Swift wanted to make. Here's why.
Picture credit: fan-made artwork by Enchaunted, http://coverlandia.net/music/35296-tove-lo-blue-lips
There are too many Taylor Swift thinkpieces. Even starting an article with that sentence feels like a minor defeat, given that the obvious riposte is, "why are you doing another one, then?" The reason is because there's an album, also by a twentysomething artist who loves to deconstruct relationships, released around the same time as Swift's poorly-received Reputation, that might go some way to revealing who "the new Taylor" really wants to be.
Hitherto, I'd always found Tove Lo a bit like a hyperactive YouTuber who felt the need to remind everyone that she was sexually active and had a hot boyfriend. By the time the promo posters had gone up in the Stockholm Metro for her second album, Lady Wood, fingers edging suggestively below the knicker-line, the schtick was wearing a bit thin. Therefore it came as a bit of a surprise to hear the Swede's follow-up, Blue Lips (Lady Wood Part Two) and have a really good time from start to finish.
The problem with Lady Wood was a solid (pun intended) concept - namely, the beginning of an enthralling but doomed hook-up - that suffered from a lack of tunes. True Disaster was a successful dip into The Weeknd's box of tricks, but there were too many accompanying tracks that didn't catch the attention, squelching from verse to chorus in a listless way that made an apparently unlimited access to no-strings shagging seem like a millennial burden rather than a joy or a pleasure. Undoubtedly that was partly the idea of the thing, illustrating the core emptiness of self-validation through Tinder and clubbing, but Lady Wood made even the parts of the lifestyle described, that were meant to be diverting, seem like such a chore.
That all changes on Blue Lips. The album's second track, the salacious Disco Tits, is the most charged that Lo has sounded in a long while, and while the song title appears to have come out of a Tove Lo Track Title Generator, from the 808 percussion to the parps of Moog synth to the descending hook in the bridge, it just sounds like tremendous fun. The following track, shedontknowbutsheknows, is Kraftwerk if the model from The Model were having a boisterous affair with a married man. Shivering Gold is about "acting all cliche and facing my fears," but it's one of the few mis-steps on Blue Lips, sonically too close to True Disaster, while lyrically too close to a teenager's Instagram caption.
Don't Ask Don't Tell is a rare foray into vulnerability for Lo. The irony is that while Swift had, on previous albums, traded on soul-baring earnestness, Lo's core persona up to now had been that of someone keen on exploring life's pleasures without asking too many questions. This track turns those thoughts on their head, beginning with a verse about wanting to get to know another person better, before deciding in the chorus, "no need to share too much, come on let it be." It's as infuriatingly contradictory as a social post beginning by chiding people who comment too much about others' body image, before asking for validation of a selfie - but it's meant to be this way, and the internal conflict is what makes this song interesting.
Another reason why Blue Lips works so well as an album is that, unlike so many of her peers, Lo isn't afraid to vary the pace of her music. There is so much slow electronic pop at the moment that the field is open for an artist who can take the melancholy and make it more euphoric. Stranger suggests that Lo can do this. "Just take the edge off it," she cries plaintively, proving that she can do far more than just one-dimensionally detached - that she can really mean it, too. Bitches probably would have worked better as a Rihanna track on Loud or Talk That Talk, but each time this album stumbles, it gets back up looking as sharp as it had before. Romantics, featuring Daye Jack, succeeds in projecting, through its spacey synths and reverb-dominated vocals, the image of the small hours of the morning at a millionaire's beach club.
It's what follows that is arguably the most surprising part of Blue Lips, because it seems like from track 10, Lo gets the courage to deviate from type in a more convincing way than she had in earlier tracks. "The things that I say are exactly what I used to tell them, and that really hurts me," she says in Cycles, a percussion-free track. It's as if the Queen of Mean, the girl who sang about only hooking up with people for the kicks, has let the mask slip and shown her true emotional self, a surprising development for listeners to the previous album. It's unexpected and beautiful.
Struggle, while returning to the regular sound, continues to implore the other protagonist to be more open with his or her feelings. The final two tracks continue the theme. There are many things - snow in London at Christmas, a genuine job offer on LinkedIn - that one expects more than a cycle of soul-searching and regret on a Tove Lo album, but the change of tone helps to round off the Lady Wood series, which suddenly seems a truly complete pair of millennial concept albums.
Swift and Lo have met on stage; Lo was regally invited to guest on Swift's 1989 tour, in which they duetted on the former's song Talking Body, Lo looking rather more comfortable in black negligee than did her host that evening. It's an apt metaphor for Swift's comfort with her material on Reputation. It's an utter Horlick's of an album, mostly because the artist at its centre doesn't seem comfortable with the persona she has adopted. Perhaps that is because it was always hitherto assumed that the 'Taylor Swift' we saw and heard was the real thing. The way she laid her yearnings bare on Love Story or State of Grace, and the way she mined broken relationships for positive gems as she did in Style, indicated that Swift wanted to take her audience on a journey that could be bought-into as authentic.
On Reputation, Swift throws that all away, on an album that has sonic similarities with Blue Lips - the juddering hip-hop drum patterns and synth strings on the title track, for example - but does not carry off the new sound anything like as confidently as Lo manages, or even with as much sophistication as Rihanna achieved on the underappreciated Anti. Compare any of Lo's bittersweet paeans to lost weekends to Swift's "I did something bad, but it felt so good," on which she sounds so much more like an adolescent trying to prove she's totes a rebel, perhaps to get into the bad girls' gang.
Delicate has more of the feel of a complete song, one meant for Swift, than anything that came before it (this is something of an oddity, given that Swift wrote or co-wrote every track). Still, it sounds cliche and carries many of the memes of pop production in 2017/18, including the high-pitched chipmunk callback vocal used by every artist from Maroon 5 to Linkin Park on recent material. Delicate sounds far better with hindsight, as it precedes Look What You Made Me Do, the derided comeback single (she deleted her Twitter for THAT?), sensibly buried at track six.
Like most modern pop albums, Reputation is too long, with 15 tracks of intensely variable quality suggesting a singer-songwriter who, while in her disputes with Apple Music and Spotify, has admirably taken power and control for the artist that were once with the music distributor, is too powerful in the studio. Swift needs a strong producer who is willing to take the scissors to the track listing, and who is able to add character to the substandard robotics of much of the backing music in these tracks, and say "this won't do, we can do better than this."
Maybe Swift was more focused on the lyrics than the music (one hopes not, listening to the assinine rhymes throughout), or maybe she trusted her producers to create a new sound, but nothing in the sound leaps out of the headphones, and nothing tweaks the emotions like Cycles did on Blue Lips. The result is that by the time you get to the excellent Gorgeous and Getaway Car, which could have sat proudly on 1989, it's too late for most casual Spotify listeners, who will probably have already decided to cull a track or two from earlier in the running order for a playlist, and may not get to the latter portion of the album. It's a shame, because on these two songs, Swift seems to abandon the experiment of pretending to be carefree and naughty, and instead is back to reminiscing about stolen moments of true love in situations inspired by John Hughes films.
About Gorgeous... it IS excellent, but the ambiance of the song is a borrowed one. The backing track, particularly the catchy keyboard hook, is essentially a "give me one of those", barely varied, version of what drives The Knife's original version of Heartbeats. Given that The Knife, through their own work under that name and Fever Ray, and their groundbreaking productions for Robyn, set up the pop landscape for female solo artists, it's perhaps no wonder that both Lo and Swift seem in thrall to them.
Taylor Swift may have looked at the careers of David Bowie or U2 and decided that a wish for longevity meant reinventing her image and her sound, and it seems, outwardly, that the image she wanted for herself was the wayward but resolute good-time girl embodied by Tove Lo. Swift, usually one of the more earnest of hit songwriters, should know better that there is a difference between putting a costume on, and living a life. Blue Lips is the albums Reputation wanted to be, but it accomplishes far more, courtesy of clearly being about a life truly lived.