Review Summary: Fuller and more revealing, bursting with confidence and vibrancy
One of the things that has always struck me about Tove Lo's progression as an artist is the clear consistency of her development. From the outset of her career to the present day, her trajectory has been a steady ascent, both in terms of artistic quality and sonic evolution. Lines can be drawn and captions pasted on previous releases as 'playing to the popular crowd', to 'finding her own sound', from 'experimenting', to 'finding the balance' and so on. In previous release Sunshine Kitty, it seemed that Tove had finally found her perfect groove, and was now able to comfortably exercise her skills within her own contained niche. The only apparent uncertainty was the question of what the next step would be. Would it be more of the same? A regression? It was exceedingly difficult to see how much further she would be able to expand on her established sound, especially considering the solid quality of Sunshine Kitty. It is wonderful to see, therefore, that Tove has capitalised on what made her last record so great, and has crafted a follow-up that feels more mature, and more stripped back in all the ways that count. There is a clear disco influence throughout that doesn't feel ostentatious or unnecessary but complements her songwriting, vocal style and the distinct vibe that she has pioneered for four previous albums now. It has flourishes of the sexcentric songstress at her raunchy best, but also at her most vulnerable, most nuanced, and most interesting.
Dirt Femme showcases a more pronounced electropop feel that manages to be both nostalgically '80s yet fundamentally modern thanks to the neon-bright production. The consistent synthy structures evoke memories of the BLUE LIPS era of Tove's career, but feel more self-assured and confident; fully committed to the aesthetic. Heartfelt opener 'No One Dies From Love' exudes this sense by way of a lovelorn yet peppy flavouring, with the crashing percussion and strobing melodies perfectly judged and earnest. It's simple stuff, but Tove revels in this simplicity, crafting catchy, memorable melodies with one eye set attentively on more modern mainstream song structures. 'Attention Whore' exemplifies this, feeling like a true blue disco number but shot through with a sultry vocal contribution from Channel Tres and an earworm hook that rides through the main body of the song. The more stripped back moments showcase the '80's influence also, albeit to a far lesser extent, and are reminiscent of tracks like 'Cool Girl' from Lady Wood. Cuts like 'Grapefruit', with its chattering rhythm and soaring vocal channel the essence of a bygone era, but not without imbuing them with Tove Lo's signature sexuality. '2 Die 4' and 'Suburbia' are synth-rich, catchy little outings, with the latter demonstrating a beautifully simplistic but subtle and head-noddingly infectious melody. An album standout, it has an empowering, fully realised theme and endearingly subdued vocal performance. '2 Die 4' is similarly toe-tapping, making use of the melody from 'Pop Corn' by Hot Butter, to rich and effervescent effect. The main hook of the song is completely lifted and repurposed, of course, but this re-imagining is full of life and a smart little artistic choice in its own right.
More modern aspects of the release come to the fore with tracks such as 'Kick In The Head', which is still quite minimal but has a production far more typical of modern pop music. It has a clean, playful, understated warehouse anthem sound but doesn't capture the fun factor to the same degree as some of the other outings here. The warped vocal motif is also a touch overused and the melody isn't particularly likeable, but it serves its purpose well enough. Conversely, 'Call On Me', a floorfiller much in the same vein as 'Jacques' from Sunshine Kitty, utilises the '80s feelgood vibe to offset the more brainless big-room structure. It's smart, and although not as enduring as the more grassroots disco excursions, has an inevitable feelgood quality and a catchy bridge. 'Cute & Cruel', featuring First Aid Kit, and 'I'm To Blame' are the restrained acoustic numbers, and although they do notably hamper Dirt Femme's pacing somewhat, they are nonetheless serviceable and transmit appropriate levels of personality. 'Cute & Cruel' is the weaker of the two, mostly owing to the attempt at merging First Aid Kits' folky sound with Tove's hyper-catchy pop brand. It works well enough, but 'I'm To Blame' provides the artist far more breathing room to perform to her own strengths, and the result is a grounded and emotionally resonant pop song.
Dirt Femme as a complete package encompasses all of Tove Lo's strengths to an impressive degree. It sacrifices none of her famous personality, lyrical cattiness or catchy melodies but manages to successfully marry them with an '80s aesthetic and a more stripped-back sense of musicianship. Lyrically, the preoccupations have matured to a degree and there is a newfound restraint exhibited against the needless bombast of some of her previous efforts, instead favouring a more controlled, yet still fun-loving incarnation of the signature sound. There are moments of tepidity- a lot of the infectious vocal lines have been traded for soulful disco grooves- and the abrupt shift in vibe across a good portion of the release might also irk some listeners invested in her more typical, modern feel. Nonetheless, the quality has shifted intuitively to reflect these changes, demonstrating a more nuanced, thoughtful pop artist with plenty of space to branch out further or blend the amalgamation in even more creative ways. It's a bubbly, joyous and endearing experience, positively rife with topical positivity and a cosy, bubbly warmth.