The mid- to late-2010s were golden for pop music. Having pushed through the trauma of 2011-13, an era whose major players included LMFAO and Psy, from 2015 to 2018 pop felt much cooler, more relevant and more sophisticated. These years generated Major Lazer’s “Lean On”, Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”, Charli XCX’s “Boys”, Dua Lipa’s “New Rules”, Rihanna’s “Work”, Drake’s “One Dance” and, of course, Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito”. It was among this vibrant pop landscape that Zara Larsson released “Lush Life”. Following a childhood in the spotlight in her native Sweden after winning, aged ten, the Swedish version of Britain’s Got Talent, she became a global star.
Larsson was 17 when “Lush Life” came out, a fact that seems almost unbelievable given the powerful tenacity of her voice. Now a sage 23-year-old, she presents a follow-up album to 2017’s So Good – the home of “Lush Life” and other dance-pop numbers like “Ain’t My Fault” and “I Would Like” — with Poster Girl.
It’s important to understand the context in which Larsson’s last wave of hits came out. While at the time they blended into the pop-but-make-it-cool musical landscape, which merged all pop-fusion from house to reggaeton into a homogenous gloop, listening to them now it’s clear just how heavily they relied on an electronic club feel. This inflection remains on Poster Girl. There are plenty of wonky-electro moments that felt de rigueur in 2016 but are now distinctive. In “Talk About Love” (featuring Young Thug), as well as Larsson’s signature belt and the poppiest of poppy chord sequences, there are synthetic shrieks and whistles in a spacious, echoing chorus that recalls the hall-of-mirrors, elastic sound of the Australian producer Flume.
Larsson balances these moments with elements that say, “don’t worry, I’m a pop star”. The opener and lead single “Love Me Land” begins with queasy-sounding strings, heavily produced, and Larsson’s thickly vocoded voice. When a steady, pumping beat kicks in, Larsson’s vocals start slowly to match it and then switch into double time, which has the effect of a slightly throatier Ariana Grande in one of her quick, downwards-inflected melodic flows. Young Thug’s verse in “Talk About Love” similarly neutralises anything a bit fruity with icy R&B.
That said, Poster Girl also has too many songs that lack nuance, relying solely on a pounding beat and Larsson’s belt. “Right Here” is a fun, clubby track but it’s gagging for an even more fun, clubbier remix too much to really get into it. Overall the album is a few tracks too long, and the excess is all of this ilk. “FFF”, for example, sounds promising at the outset with its change of pace and spiky rhythm, but succumbs to another indistinctive floor-filler chorus.
[See also: Emily Bootle on Katy Kirby’s Cool Dry Place]
To get the other irritations out of the way – because this is an album that, for the most part, I enjoyed very much – Poster Girl also falls at the typical pop hurdle of being simply a collection of singles. This means that while it is united by vague, generic themes of romantic relationships and female empowerment, there is no overarching narrative. Occasionally the tracks actively jar with one another. “Right Here”, an electro bop about being ignored and unappreciated by a lover (he wouldn’t even notice her if she was “naked at dinner”), is followed immediately by “Wow”, which is about the exact opposite: a lover who cannot keep their hands off her (“Baby I’m not even in a gown/I’m just in a T-shirt on the couch/The way you want me makes me want you now”). Pop doesn’t have to be authentic, but such a blatant U-turn does kill the mood somewhat.
Gripes aside, Poster Girl is a masterclass in the art of the sad-banger – clearly drawing inspiration from fellow Swede Robyn – and holds euphoria and sorrow in delicate balance. Larsson plays with this tension from early on: “Talk About Love” juxtaposes hedonistic lyrics with a mournful, romantic chord sequence and expansive, profound-sounding beats; “Need Someone” uses a more organic instrumental texture, with piano and bass guitar, to create a backdrop for ambiguous lyrics with a hint of longing: “I’m happy/I don’t need someone/I’m happy, I don’t need your love/I’m happy, but I want you”.
It’s later in the album, though, that this tension peaks, on “Ruin My Life”, the single originally released in 2018. The lyrical content of “Ruin My Life”, a dreamy electro ballad, could either be classified as Gen Z nonsense or the most romantic song ever written. It is a musical exploration of the self-inflicted agony that often comes with infatuation, a phenomenon that is also present in much online rhetoric and spurred on, as the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino put it in an essay on the subject in 2019, by “ambient fatalism”. Larsson begging repeatedly for an ex to come back to “ruin her life” and “fuck up her nights” over a wash of dreamy electronic chords is the ultimate in contemporary pop music: it is both earnest and self-aware; funny and sad. As well as embodying the deep romantic pain at the heart of all the best pop music, it encapsulates the desire of the online generation for chaos, for something to narrativise. Where some of the album falls short, this track is perfection.
The pitfalls of Poster Girl are normal for pop albums: it’s an industry run on singles and live shows, not cohesive LPs. And its merits – charisma, just enough experimentation, punchy emotion – make up for it. Music may have moved on since the mid-2010s, but perhaps Larsson’s own golden era is only just beginning.