Hard is pleasant, lightweight bit of pop that feels grander than the sums of its modest parts.
Hard is Swedish synthpop artist Tove Styrke’s first album in four years. Her last release was 2018’s Sway, a lovely, delicate indie-pop project that thrived on minimalism and precision. Songs like the whimsical “Say My Name” were energized by their use of negative space, layering bending basslines with light synth chimes; vocal takes often caught the raspy edges of Styrke’s voice; sound effects such as birdsong, flickering street lights, and unzipping jeans were scattered playfully across various tracks. Sway was an album about the rush of having a crush, blowing small moments of attraction up into memorable hooks that still preserved the intimacy of locking eyes with someone else in a crowd.
Hard is an evolution from Sway — still bearing the same minimalism and tenderness, but also mixed with some more bombastic and varied arrangements. Styrke’s skill at creating urgent, memorable pop hooks out of a simple foundation has not changed: standout track “Start Walking” has writing whose catchiness seems effortless and production that sounds glittery but not gaudy, fluttery but still tethered to Earth. It’s an addictive, eclectic blend of the different stylistic impulses on the album (yet avoids becoming mired in them). “Cool Me Down” picks up the same delicate, icy danciness and “24H” the same light, tapping percussion in two of the album’s most Sway-like arrangements; the bassy synth that sneaks in on the fringes of “Walking” has much more overt counterparts in “Lies” and the explosive, synthwave-influenced “YouYouYou.” Even a similar kind of lyrical attitude is echoed in “Millennial Blues” — “I’ve got way too many options / Over-thinking, over-shopping” carries the same kind of melancholy and resigned acceptance as “We’re staring at the problem / But somebody’s gotta start walking.”
The themes of the project vary from breakups to heady crushes to the space in between (and to hey-the-world-sucks contours with “Millennial Blues”). Styrke generally goes for a standard pop vocal, but a few tracks have her trying out a rawer approach. “Hardcore” goes too far in this regard and strains her voice to unpleasant levels, but acoustic ballad “Show Me Love” strikes a better balance and turns her rasp into a signifier of sincerity. Sometimes she plays cynical (“Baby tell me lies / If you need to”), sometimes romantic (“I need you today and the day after / You need me too babe, nothing else matters”), and sometimes she steps back from both and reflects, such as on earnest guitar-pop closer “Bruises.” Hard is a clear progression from Styrke’s past work, her deceptively casual synthpop style camouflaging an increased amount of edge, depth, and variety in the writing and production. It’s also a release that’s greater than the sum of its parts: some of the songs would probably feel slight in isolation, but as part of the tracklist become a well-fitting piece of the puzzle. Four years is a long time to wait for an album that’s only 30 minutes long, but despite its short runtime, Hard does a fine job living up to expectations and delivering something fresh and fun for listeners.
Published as part of Album Roundup — June 2022 | Part 1.