Tove Lo’s Lady Wood was one of 2016s best pop albums, which charted the excitement of the thrill of the chase turning into an inevitable comedown. Its narrative of highs and lows is mirrored tonight (17 March), but not quite in the way I thought it would.
Given the Swede’s maverick nature, I arrived at Shepherds Bush Empire expecting the unexpected. Accordingly, before a note is played there’s an undeniable theatre at play; the merchandise stall has Lady Wood scarves featuring the albums defiant clitoris logo, the screen covering the front of the stage is lit up with a projection of flames.
When the screen drops it reveals Lo backed by three piece band and the opening “True Disaster” is sensational, combining a swaggering, half-spoken verse with a chorus that’s brilliantly catchy. It’s followed without a pause for breath with “Lady Wood” during which Lo adds to the pulsating rhythm by whacking a floor tom with a drumstick and “Influence” where she wraps her arms around her shoulders, as if dancing with herself, perfectly lost in the music. Wiz Khalifa’s rap is replaced by a deft funk guitar and as Lo’s voice blends seamlessly with the electronica it’s brilliantly breathless pop music. In the space of three songs the set is what I’d hoped it would be, super-high energy and immersive.
Yet the spell fades somewhat with “Moments” from her debut Queen of the Clouds, where the delivery suffers in comparison with the opening salvo, as if she’s playing on autocue. As the attention drifts from the music, the modus operandi of Lo’s onstage movement, where she either grabs her crotch or gyrates from side to side, is suddenly more noticeable and feels studied as the show progresses. It’s followed by “The Way That I Am”, where Lo beckons the audience to wave their hands in the air, to which they ecstatically oblige, but despite the glee of the crowd, rather than a spontaneous gesture, again it feels like a ritual that’s repeated on each night of the tour.
“Talking Body” gets things back on track; set to a background of strobe lights, where Lo once again looks immersed in the power of the music. She then provides the unexpected and plays a beautifully stripped-down solo version of “Imaginary Friend” on the keyboard. If anything she could have extended the solo section beyond one song, but instead it’s followed by a jam from her band as she makes a costume change.
The last two songs of the set show the difference between tonight’s brilliant and humdrum moments. As she plays “Flashes”, compared to the tension of the recorded version, live it doesn’t have the same level of lift off. But the closing “Cool Girl” nails it, when Lo steps on a pedal to add the vocoder effect to her voice it sounds marvellously disembodied and elevates the song to her natural milieu of untouchable cool, rather than a crowd pleaser.
She dons a glitter flecked raincoat for the closer “Habits”, which is a joy, but tellingly the audience know it’s the last song and rather than screaming for more, they put their coats on to face a chilly London evening.
This summer will see Lo support Justin Bieber and Coldplay and while her non-conformist nature will be a sight to behold in stadium-sized venues, it would be wonderful if she opted for spontaneity and nuance, that not only focusses on the brilliance of her songs but her originality as a performer.
When Lo was on the top of her game tonight, where she subverted the pop formula or simply lost herself in the music, she sounded untouchable. Yet those highs were mixed with moments where this most individual of artists seemed to be giving the audience exactly what they wanted, which wasn’t what I expected from this coolest of pop auteurs.