People who haven’t listened to Tove Lo’s debut EP, Truth Serum, all the way through often get the wrong idea about the 26-year-old singer. If you’ve only heard “Habits (Stay High),” the album’s second cut that begins, “I eat my dinner in the bathtub/Then I go to sex clubs/Watching freaky people gettin’ it on,” you’d get the impression that she’s some sort of Swedish Kesha.
Likewise, if you only know the EP's lead single, “Out of Mind,” you might peg her as a morose Robyn who made a breakup album. Though she was dubbed “the saddest girl in Sweden” Tove—born Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson—recorded more than a misery EP; Tove Lo wrote one of the most unflinchingly honest records about a relationship gone bad in recent memory.
“It’s about one relationship. It’s all in order, that’s how it happened,” Tove tells me matter-of-factly on the phone from Stockholm. She’s getting ready to come Stateside and make her late-night TV debut on Late Night with Seth Meyers. “I'm just nervous that I'm going to swear or do something stupid [on TV].”
Kind of like the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, Truth Serum’s five principle tracks— “Not On Drugs,” “Paradise,” “Over,” “Habits (Stay High),” and “Out of Mind”—document the five stages of a relationship turning sour: good times, doubt, breaking up, coping, and still being hung up. “A lot of people can relate to that kind of storyline, that pattern in particular, unfortunately,” Tove Lo explains.
When female artists sing about breakups—whether it be Miley’s “Wrecking Ball,” Beyoncé’s “Best Thing I Never Had,” or Whitney’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”—they almost overwhelmingly write themselves in the position of the wronged party and their songs are about recovering and strengthening from the experience. They’re tunes we can get behind, which is why we bellow them post-breakup after a bottle of Merlot. Tove Lo flips the script on this narrative.
“It happened like in ‘Over’; me making a big mistake and having to confess and come clean and then…it was heartbreaking,” Tove Lo admits. “I think it’s sometimes harder to be the one who made a big mistake than the one who’s been hurt cause then you can feed off a lot of anger. Anger can make you do like really great things some times.”
Herein lies the innovative beauty of Truth Serum: Tove Lo manages to mesh together a warts-and-all narrative—making a mistake, self destruction masked as coping, staying hung up—with polished dance floor-ready beats. Bravely, she doesn’t shy away from the low points of her life. Furthermore the juxtaposition of pop hooks and synthy flourishes and the candidness of her lyrics doesn’t seek to mitigate what she’s singing about. In fact, it normalizes it.
So often, pop music is about the way we wish our lives were—romances right out of a “Teenage Dream,” “Fancy” lifestyle—while the less-savory aspects of the human condition are relegated to punk or hip-hop. Tove Lo manages to take hers—and all of our own—low points and put them in a pop framework. She makes them universal, accessible, and approachable and that is a very good thing—for music and for us.
"Truth Serum" is out now on Universal Music.