“I’m an attention wh***,” repeats Tove Lo in a robotic monotone on her fifth album, Dirt Femme. Bang on brand for the 34-year-old Swede born Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson, whose sad, confessional bangers once saw her hailed as “the world’s most brutally honest pop star”. So the narratives are dependably punchy through this record, and they’re carried by solidly danceable Eighties and Nineties club beats. Not an original sound, then. But one that allows her more challenging or subversive thoughts to slide slyly into a night out on the town.
Thematically, Lo is always trying to square her bold, feminist, exhibitionist streak (which saw her bare her breasts on stage at Glastonbury) with the anxiety and self-doubt that left her struggling with an eating disorder for five years. Commanding songs such as “Attention Wh***” (on which she demands “keep your eyes on me” while California rapper Channel Tres admires her “skintight leather”) and “Pineapple Slice” (“I lift my hips, that’s your go-ahead”) are balanced by others like “Grapefruit”, on which she directly addresses her eating disorder.
Against the steady 4/4 synth throb that underpins most of Dirt Femme, Lo describes calorie counting until she was “withering away”. In recent interviews, she’s said that she only managed to resolve her food issues when a doctor told her she was at serious risk of losing her voice. But on “Grapefruit”, she’s frank about the two steps forward, one step back of her journey to “take bad the body I’m in”. Later, she tackles her tendency to inertia on the slick “Kick in the Head”, channelling the groove of Madonna’s “Erotica” as she tries to get out of bed.
Continuing her exploration of retro pop sounds “2 Die For” dances around the melody of 1969 Mood instrumental “Popcorn” (which Gen Xers are more likely to know as the Swedish Chef’s song from The Muppets, and Gen Ys as one of the Crazy Frog’s earworms). The sound of the plinky old tune rattling down the decades, lighting up your brain’s nostalgia nervous system like a pinball machine. The reference bleeds into the slo-mo ballad “True Romance” as she croons “I make my move, spilling all my popcorn over you/ you’re confused, what does a girl like me want with you?/ I want your hands, your future plans…” Lo’s voice drifts dreaming between a yearning rasp, an intimate girlish whisper and a vocodered distance. Those seeking an autobiographical reading may hear the story of the bisexual party girl who married her boyfriend in 2020.
Folkier fellow Swedes, First Aid Kit, pop up with an acoustic guitar to ponder the nature of love on “Cute and Cruel”. It sounds as though Lo’s wandered out of the nightclub to sit in a summer meadow and make daisy chains. Then she bounces back onto the neon dancefloor with the catchy “Call on Me” (ft SG Lewis). You have to admire a woman who can spin all her lows into such tendon-twanging highs.