Pop Song Review: Tove Lo – “Habits (Stay High)”

Two pop song reviews for you this week. Today it’s “Habits (Stay High)” by rising dance-pop star Tove Lo. Fun fact: this song spent a considerable amount of time this summer atop the Billboard Rock Charts. Another fun fact: I nearly gave myself an aneurysm trying to figure out how that happened. The matter even pushed me to send out out one of my rare tweets that wasn’t an automatic Publicize posting by WordPress:

Like the Kadupul flower of Sri Lanka, you must enjoy it while you can. Anyway, here’s the video:

First impressions: Well, it’s definitely not a rock song, so well done there Billboard. Actually as far as dance-pop songs go it’s pretty good: catchy, emotional, danceable but with a dash of sadness. Not bad.

The music: Given its odd placement on the rock charts I was all set to dislike “Habits” but I have to say, I found myself pleasantly surprised by what I heard. It’s a song that holds back rather than assaulting your senses, which I appreciate: the production is smooth but subtle so it never overpowers the ear, a rare feat for a song intended to be blasted in clubs. The chorus doesn’t explode but rather swells to a backdrop of synths that sounds to me like a sombre choir, accompanied by a little falling violin line tucked into the mix (though I’ve always been useless when trying to pick out string instruments, so it could be something else).

There’s a definite undercurrent of despair to the music, all minor notes and chords (I think – again, me no music great): even the synth line that holds the verse together is more of a barely-contained weep than the thunderous clap of confidence you get from a lot of club-pop. It doesn’t forget its main purpose, though, and much like somebody just about holding themselves together for the sake of The Dance, there’s a tidy little groove at work here keeping the beat snapping along. It’s definitely a step or two above most dance music I hear, which admittedly isn’t a lot these days.

As for the vocal side of things, Tove Lo has a very nice voice and it fits the music well – there’s something impassioned and yet defeatist about her delivery, breathless and desperate yet confident and firm. Also, because the music is relatively minimalist in construction it lets the melody stand out on its own and, fortunately, it’s a strong, catchy melody with some lovely, mournful hooks set to a nice, funky groove. Yes, this is the Archbudgie not just complimenting a dance song, but profusely so. Again, enjoy it while it lasts.

The lyrics: Tove Lo is having trouble forgetting a former lover, so she has to constantly get drunk, take drugs, party and sleep around – i.e. “stay high” – just to get this person off her mind for the night. I guess it’s less expensive than therapy, but probably not by much. The opening line is “I eat my dinner in my bathtub / then I go to sex clubs,” so we’re diving right in, so to speak. It’s interesting that the lyrics start out with what sounds like a pretty wild night out, only to arrive by the end of the verse at “I’ve been around and I’ve seen it all.” This might be the single most important line in the song because it really hits home the emptiness, numbness and exhaustion Tove Lo is trying to convey… or maybe I’m just spit-balling here? What do I know?

“Gotta stay high all my life / to forget I’m missing you.” Or she could just move on and find someone else, but that would admittedly be a less interesting story. How much shorter would The Revenger’s Tragedy have been if Vindice had just said, “eh, plenty more fish, am I right?”

“Oh, make it fast and greasy / I’m numb and way too easy.” Is she describing rebound sex or a McDonalds meal? The former interpretation is quite sublime in the way it alludes to Tove Lo’s complete state of desperation and self-loathing – that she just wants a quick release to keep her mind and body occupied without any concern for her health or well-being – while the latter… actually, no, that works too.

“Staying in my play pretend / where the fun ain’t got no end.” So she’s acknowledging that the lifestyle is all just a fantasy she plays up for herself? Interesting. Now, I know that I’ve had a pop at club songs in the past for making a night out seem like a dismal exercise in self-delusion when the music is trying to create an entirely different atmosphere, but I don’t know, something about the lyrics in this song sell it in a way the others didn’t. Tove Lo’s pain feels more real, more visceral than the histrionic melodrama of something like “Blame”. Maybe it’s because the sadness of the music actually matches the sadness of the lyrics for a change? That could be it. Mind you, if she has the money to maintain such a hard partying lifestyle she must be doing something right with her life.

The only real criticism I might have is that it’s all very surface, if you know what I mean: there’s no attempt at metaphor or irony here – it’s all very straightforward and obvious what she’s talking about. That’s a minor niggle, though, and even with that in mind the specificity of the lyrics, e.g. the direct references to sex clubs and munchies, does make it relatable in a way that might have been lost or muddied had she attempted anything more complex. So what I guess I’m saying is “shut up, me,” and I kinda wish that was the first time I’d found myself saying that. This week.

Verdict: This might be some rush of blood to the head talking here, but I’m going to give this a 4 out of 5. It’s as close as we’re getting to modern romantic tragedy and it’s a pretty catchy, bristling tune to boot. Still not rock, though.

Today’s double-up is “I Never Cry” by Alice Cooper (yes, it’s another Alice Cooper song, because screw you, Alice Cooper rocks). Alternatively feel free to substitute any blues song ever written.

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