The Best Albums of 2016, #8

band018. Tove Lo, Lady Wood (Universal)

With Queen of the Clouds catapulting Swedish singer Tove Lo to the cusp of global stardom – and rightfully so, as it remains one of the smartest pop albums of this decade – you had to wonder what she and her producers would attempt on the hotly anticipated follow-up. If she did more of the same, it would have been mighty satisfying – after all, the Max Martin-connected production team The Struts excel at creating crowd-pleasing pop music – but it would have had folks wondering if her talent and creative range was limited and a little conservative. As her 2016 single “Cool Girl” showed, however, the young artist clearly wanted to take a different approach.

Lady Wood is an intriguing second album, fairly unconventional by contemporary pop standards. The instinct on a follow-up to a successful album is to repeat the formula only on a grander scale, but on this album Tove Lo dials things back significantly. There are fewer fireworks, fewer moments of tortured melodrama, replaced by restrained arrangements that keep a steady, hypnotic pace. If you want big payoffs like “Time Bomb”, you’re out of luck. Instead it’s all about the slow burn, as the bulk of the tracks on Lady Wood are more informed by electropop and R&B than contemporary pop. She remains a big fan of album concepts too, and while it doesn’t have as rewarding an arc as Queen of the Clouds did, the two halves of Lady Wood offer differing perspectives. Side one, which is loaded with a series of stunning electro tracks, chronicles a protagonist dispassionately living in the moment, hedonistically living a life of physical pleasure but zero spritiual connection, capped off by the sensational “True Disaster”, in which she readily admits she’s “gonna get hurt”. The second half turns its focus on the protagonist herself, confronting her own insecurities. It’s here where the arrangements become more vibrant, more reflective of the Tove Lo we got to know on the last album. “Imaginary Friend”, “Flashes”, and “WTF Love Is” bring the album to a surprisingly rewarding conclusion given the brooding intensity of side one. “I got fire eyes, glitter in my tear lines,” she sings near the end, a perfect snapshot of the persona on display on this surprisingly bold record.