On 2014's expertly crafted Queen of the Clouds, Swedish songwriting virtuoso and pop star Tove Lo, along with artists like The Weeknd, helped define the moody, atmospheric pop that currently permeates (and rules, if Ariana and Selena have anything to say about it) radio in 2016.

Two years later, Tove has returned to reclaim her crown—and her sense of autonomy. On her sophomore album, she's a woman unashamed of being human, all messy and mistake-making and (literally) masturbatory. But if Queen of the Clouds was Tove Lo's raucous night out at the club, Lady Wood is the underground after-party: Steamier, smokier and more sexually liberated. The drinks have already been spilled—now is the time for whispering dirty secrets in the dark and baring one's soul to strangers.

To this end, Tove knows that confidence and uncertainty aren't mutually exclusive. While she undresses her imperfections and admits to her vices and regrets, she simultaneously touts herself as one helluva catch (she's a "Cool Girl," after all.) "I'm fine as f---," she decrees on "Influence," the album's finger-snapping, mid-tempo introduction (notwithstanding the actual intro, "Fairy Dust —Chapter I") which features rapper Wiz Khalifa. But also, she's "under the influence": "So don't trust every word I say," she warns. In her world, everything is a blur.

On the darkly tropical "Lady Wood," the singer doesn't flip-flop with her feelings as she howls over the wild, wobbling jungle beat. She knows exactly who she is ("Nothing but a dirty mind / A player burning bridges where she goes") and what she wants ("Dirty on the inside / Damaged goods with nothing but pride"). So what gives Tove lady wood? Realness, and all the f---ed up stuff that it comes with, baby.

A throbbing deep space disco beat charges forward on "True Disaster," on which the Swedish songwriter laments about the pristine "pretty boys" and "pretty girls" who ultimately lack that edge, that personal baggage she longs for in order to make a human connection. (Tove's probably not a fan of Tinder.) It's a revealing slice of electro-pop that boils with an almost uncomfortable sense of honesty: "I said come on, zero f---s about it / Come on, I know I'm gonna get hurt... / Keep playing my heartstrings faster and faster / You can be just what I want, my true disaster."

She may be a "Cool Girl," but on the first single off Lady Wood, Tove renounces all other labels. She rolls her eyes at relationship expectations and fuccbois alike. Over a rolling beat and smoky synths, she shrugs at the notion of a happily-ever-after, promising to keep it chill at the expense of coming off ice cold: "You can run free, I won't hold it against ya / You do your thing, never wanted a future / F--- if I knew how to put it romantic."

On "Vibes," the alt-pop star switches things up with a refreshing featured vocal from Brooklyn-based songwriter and producer Joe Janiak, who brings a raspy tone to their emotive duet. A folksy guitar riff lends a dreamy atmosphere to the otherwise spaced-out electro—like Stevie Nicks slipping into a discotheque after dark—and Tove pours her voice over the track's stumbling, trippy breakdown like lyrical honey as she sings about "trippin' on [his] highs," and maybe, just maybe, falling in love.

As the album veers into "Fire Fade — Part II," Tove's high begins to wear off like Tinker Bell's pixie dust after too much fluttering around Neverland. The buzz is still there, but we've ventured into deeper spaces; you can sense mascara has been smeared and conversations have taken a darker turn. And truly, they do.

On "Don't Talk About It," a neon-hued mid-tempo electro ballad with synths pulled straight off of the Drive soundtrack and a chorus that crashes like a tsunami, the singer-songwriter picks anxiously at the scab of fame and self-satiation ("Take our pics, it's like a fix for your anxiety / The world is beautiful so why don't you feel anything?"). And on "Imaginary Friend," a confessional burst of melodic pop, the candid Swede opens up about rising above the detractors of her past. "People said you’re not a superstar... / Got my armor on with superglue," she confides on the anthem. "Hate on this world 'cause reality sucks." It's not bitter, but it's not necessarily an opus of self-empowerment and optimism; it's simply real and personal, a lived experience shared without sugar-coating. (She has her "Moments," but not all stories need a moral, do they?)

Kicking off with a warped gospel keyboard riff, "Keep It Simple" marks another shifting moment for Lady Wood. The slow-burning track builds deliciously from a shadowy jam into a towering techno-rock anthem that would fit in alongside Justice's "Genesis" (Cross, 2007) or Lady Gaga's "Heavy Metal Lover" (Born This Way, 2011). It's also one of the album's more emotionally tolling confessionals, with lyrics addressing heart wrenching, guilt-ridden lust: "I go to bed with you but dream about him / You think I want to? No I hate that he wins."

While some moments on the record can sound a little same-y, perhaps an inevitable byproduct of this particular brand of brooding club pop, the artist rarely treads the same path twice lyrically.

On the hazy R&B jam "Flashes," she grapples with the insecurities and uncertainties celebrity threatens to expose, the changes it threatens to make: "When I f--- things up in front of camera flashes... / When all I built up with sweat, blood, tears just crashes... / Money is a problem, you say / In a way like I'm to blame... / All I want is for us to stay the same."

And on "WTF Love Is," she closes off the album with glitter in her tear lines, "stranded on the dance floor," exasperated with the expectations of romance at large.

Tove Lo 'Lady Wood' (2016)
Island Records

There's a hymn-like quality to Tove's songs on Lady Wood, and the tales she weaves of sex, love and everything that falls in-between are almost religious in the sense that it's clear these experiences are her rituals; the truth is what she ultimately worships. Unlike the verses of the Bible, however, Tove doesn't believe in cautionary tales. What she shares she does so to be understood, not to self-flagellate for her mistakes like so many women are taught to.

It makes sense, then, that Lady Wood's titillating album art draws influence heavily, perhaps even overtly, from another pop Queen's work: Madonna's 1989 opus Like A Prayer. Just as Madonna expressed herself freely (even to the dismay of a certain corporate sponsor) less than two years after Tove was born in Stockholm in 1987, the rising Swedish pop force refuses to repent for her human sins on her brashly, effortlessly feminist manifesto.

And so, two years after making her debut, Tove Lo still hasn't kicked her "Habits." Thank goodness.

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