Credit: Erik Henriksson
by Joshua Minsoo Kim Music Pop Rocks

Zara Larsson | Poster Girl

April 15, 2021

Poster Girl once again demonstrates Larsson’s potential, but not nearly as much as it illuminates her lack of depth as a pop performer.

Ever since Zara Larsson broke through in 2015 with “Lush Life,” her career has been defined by a hit-or-miss anonymity. To approach songs without a clear and carefully manicured personality is, to be certain, a strategic move: it lends naturally to Larsson’s modish nature, and when the production and songwriting are strong enough, her songs can project some semblance of universal emotion. The singles that followed “Lush Life,” including “Never Forget You” and “Ain’t My Fault,” made her pop formula obvious: sing with enough bravado, and with lyrics that could signify the most basic of feelings, and the instrumentation could elevate a club banger to something more than its clunky parts.

Poster Girl doesn’t change much for Larsson despite it seeing an expansion of her sound. Lyrically, she aims not for self-mythologizing, but is instead comfortable with expressing simple ideas forcefully. At times, it’s lightning in a bottle. On her 2018 single “Ruin My Life,” she warbles and whimpers, allowing all the power to rest in a breathlessly-spoken chorus accompanied by a rumbling synth bass. Its brazen attitude is its greatest asset, making the scorching “I want you to fuck up my nights” confession feel like a private thought uncontrollably bursting at the seams. Her second-most successful single here, “Love Me Land,” is less stunning: regal strings, neon synths, and a lurching bassline provide the scaffolding for a confident and cool atmosphere, but Larsson’s stuttered coos are unnatural to a fault; they’re too obviously in service of an interesting hook.

With Poster Girl, it’s increasingly clear that Larsson’s in a peculiar position as a vocalist: she’s at her best when she’s just a vessel for catharsis rather than a pop star with discernible history and personhood. As such, when we’re reminded of her anonymity, or see failed attempts at her straying from that mold, the results can be awkward. On “Talk About Love,” the rabid pace at which the titular hook is sung makes it feel like she stepped into the studio and simply followed the melody that a topline writer provided; there’s no feeling, just melodic rhythm. It makes for a bloodless pairing with Young Thug’s feature, his delivery far smoother even in this most pop-friendly of modes.

The great conundrum of Larsson’s music is that she seems incapable of expressing any emotion convincingly. This is why she falters on songs that don’t have a stirring instrumental. “Look What You’ve Done” is one of the worst offenders, its disco-funk gloss in need of an actual diva to sell the pageantry. Instead, Larsson sounds like she’s straining to sing, failing to make the song her own. When it tumbles into a trap-inflected bridge, she sounds more market-tested than ever. “What Happens Here” fairs better, but it’s a post-Ariana trap-pop song that coasts along with little palpable consideration for its words; Larsson sings a line like “Spending time don’t mean that I’m dependent” with little conviction, and the structuring of its lyrics makes the “I don’t give no fucks” hook feel unassured. Even on Poster Girl’s most memorable cuts, like “Need Someone,” she feels uncomfortable in her own pop skin. The album’s title, then, proves apt: Larsson is here, but she remains two-dimensional.

Published as part of Album Roundup — March 2021 | Part 3.