By Deepa Lakshmin
Tove Lo left the stage. A sold-out crowd waited in the pit, expecting her band to kick off one last song to wrap up her concert, but she had something more exciting planned for her album release party on Thursday, September 19. A few minutes later, the "Glad He's Gone" singer — green glitter tears down her cheeks and plastic cup in her hand — surprised everyone by the bar at Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom. Giant silver balloons spelled out the title of her fourth LP in five transformative years: Sunshine Kitty, out now.
In between taking selfies with people on the floor, Tove crashed fans' pics at a photo booth featuring her feisty cartoon alter ego, a "mini savage Care Bear-like thing," she called it ahead of the show. The animal graces Sunshine Kitty's cover next to Tove herself, sporting Lady Wood's logo on its stomach — a nod to her 2016 sophomore album. "We've run into a lot of problems with censorship around her," Tove told MTV News. "I thought she would be able to get away with more than me, but no, it's getting banned... because it looks like a vagina."
"I've been on a bit of a search, looking at symbols. When I search 'penis' and there's a cactus that grows and then a flower comes out of it, isn't that as much alluding as this symbol is?" she said. "Because it's based on the female sign, not based on the vagina. Issues."
Tove Lo — real name: Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson — is no stranger to censorship. Fairy Dust, her first short film that accompanied Lady Wood, was briefly pulled from YouTube thanks to a masturbation scene soundtracked by "Bitches," a song from 2017's Blue Lips. Her clever album names speak to how differently society talks about male versus female pleasure. Sunshine Kitty, influenced by the phrase "pussy power," continues this wordplay. Earlier this year, she told MTV News the title came to her after watching a Girls episode where Hannah Horvath soaks up the sun through her, well, you know.
"Bitches" soon got a second set of bold visuals when Charli XCX, Icona Pop, Elliphant, and ALMA hopped on the remix. In a wild music video about a sex clinic, they star as experts who teach a man how to go down on his girl. It's sassy, it's humorous, and it's nothing like "Bad as the Boys" — Tove Lo's mellow next collaboration with ALMA and second Sunshine Kitty single.
"I know she used me for some fun / She was as bad as the boys," Tove sings about her heartbreak. ALMA has her own side of the story: "Love hurts when you're fingering / But she kiss him." Tove penned these candid lines after reading what she wrote in her old journals, which often fuel her songwriting process. "I had read the section where I talk about my first girl crush when I was a teenager and realizing that I was also into girls," she said. The song became one of five collabs on Sunshine Kitty, which loops in artists as varied as Kylie Minogue and "Brazilian funker" MC Zaac.
"I wanted another girl on ['Bad as the Boys'] who also was into girls," Tove continued. "I wanted it to feel real, so ALMA is a good friend of mine — amazing voice, and [she's] gay — so I reached out to her, 'Hey do, you feel like you can relate to this song?' And she's like, 'Oh my god, fuck yeah, this is great.'"
"Bad as the Boys" is an earworm, but beyond that, the emotions behind it especially resonate with fans excited to see themselves represented in commercial pop. Multiple YouTube comments hail it as a "bisexual anthem," with at least one designating it the perfect tune for Rue and Jules' complicated relationship on Euphoria. "The most common thing when it's a girl and a girl, it's sexy or flirty," Tove said. "It's just more [of] a sexual thing than an emotional thing. I think maybe that was a big thing that felt like it was needed in a way."
With Bi Visibility Day on my mind, I mention I've noticed boys often ask bisexual girls if they've ever hooked up with girls. "It's funny," she replied. "A lot of straight dudes feel like they're being accepting because they're into girl-on-girl porn, and you're like, please don't bring that into the conversation we're having right now."
In her art, Tove has always done "what comes natural" to her, from celebrating all types of love in her 2015 "Timebomb" music video to flashing audiences when the moment feels right. "I have a lot of friends that are bi," she said. "Or maybe they don't really want to identify, or maybe they lean more one way than the other, but it's not a big deal... I think whatever you want should be the way that you should be able to live."
It's fitting that some of her love songs avoid pronouns, like her latest Sunshine Kitty single, the hot-and-cold "Sweettalk My Heart." Its chorus gets you in the gut: "Sweeter than love / Is the taste of all those promises / That pulls you in for good." That sincerity helped Tove realize she was ready to write her fourth LP. "You're both choosing to promise each other things for the future... Right now, it's the truth, but no one knows what’s going to happen," she explained about the song's meaning.
Tove's music is driven first and foremost by her vulnerable lyrics. "Gotta stay high all the time to keep you off my mind" — the line that launched her career from her breakout 2014 hit "Habits (Stay High)" — was hauntingly honest, a retreat into darkness at a time of glossy pop. But what makes Sunshine Kitty a refreshing leap forward is how optimistic it is. Even the breakup that prompts "Glad He's Gone" feels upbeat, something made more evident by Tove slotting the song first at her release show.
Even though Tove played old favorites from her entire discography, the Bowery crowd hadn't heard many of the Sunshine Kitty songs she played that night. Their collective reaction to "Stay Over" and "Are U Gonna Tell Her?" was understandably to dance it out. But others, like "Mateo" or "Mistaken" — the album's sole ballad, "about jealousy and not feeling like you're enough" — took time to process and understand the weight of her words.
The album ends with the unexpected tearjerker "Anywhere U Go," which Tove performed against a glowing orange and yellow backdrop — a private sunset for her party. "Stay together / You make me better," she sings about a "young love" that fills her with warmth. No wonder she says her biggest hope for Sunshine Kitty is to "[open] up people's hearts a little bit." After the journey she'd taken us on, as well as her own path to positivity, listening to that song's final a capella notes felt like lying in a ray of sunlight.