Icona Pop’s breakthrough hit “I Love It” had a fun underdog quality: whoa, there’s a Swedish rave-punk song I first heard on Pitchfork being performed live on Dancing With the Stars right now? This gleefully nihilistic song about crashing cars and watching them burn is attempting to sell me a mobile phone in an airport kiosk? After a decade in which pure pop bliss and defiant Scandinavian divas became just as accepted in indie music culture as dudes with loud guitars, this seemed like a belated second-wave triumph. The gothy-electro song your mom can hum! So it’s a minor shame that the debut album by the group, This Is... Icona Pop, a record singularly obsessed with having dumb, dark fun in spite of any set-back that a disappointing lover or two-day hangover can throw at you, ends up being such a bludgeoning bummer.
Despite some immunity built up over one billion listens to its CAPS-lock and exclamation point thrills, “I Love It” is still a ruthless hook delivery system and the best thing on the record. (Having written it and none of the other tracks, British starlet Charlie XCX comes out of this album with her reputation enhanced.) The other songs feel like a water-thinned version of the sloppy, smiley-faced hedonism that’s given Ke$ha her career. “On a Roll” is particularly empty, as Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo shout about waking up on floors, looking perfect, getting free things, being “rock stars.” Elsewhere they tackle tough topics like how the weekend is the best time to party and how friends can be enjoyable. On the one hand you might give them credit for working in an adjacent zone to moodier indie synth-pop groups like Purity Ring and Chvrches but avoiding their calculated ambiguity altogether. These songs are designed to be big, broad, inclusive—would-be anthems of female togetherness that smuggle in beat-drops to thrill the bro-iest EDM bro. But since when is zero ambiguity something to strive for? Have we become collectively cool with blatant vapidity if it's delivered emphatically enough?
There are a couple of better moments that suggest Icona Pop might yet offer something more. “In the Stars” uses a change of pace to create in-song dynamics that stand out among the sledgehammer strikes. The album-closing “Then We Kiss” is legitimately fun and sexy, earwormy enough for another car radio smash. But there’s something about this “fuck it, let’s have fun!” content that ends up being totally depressing. There's only so long you can hop up and down and drink to blackout and pretend there’s no price to pay. A whole album’s worth of it is only as enjoyable as a cartoon. I don’t say that to suggest that nothing of real substance can come from synthetic ingredients, or that solemnity or depression are the crucial components of “true art.” The increased acceptance of pop and electronic dance music in indie culture over the course of the 00s was a much-needed correction. But if this is where we’ve finally landed, it might be time to take a few steps back in the opposite direction.