Zara Larsson has all the makings of a premier pop star — strong voice, captivating stage show, catchy songs — but she is yet to truly have her big break Stateside. With Poster Girl the “Never Forget You” singer may have more than a few “big break” type songs on her hands.
Zara’s international debut album, So Good, was an absolute smash record across Europe. Released in 2017, the album housed hit singles like “Lush Life,” “Symphony,” and the MNEK-assisted “Never Forget You,” the latter of which proved to be Zara’s breakthrough single in the States. With a lengthy break between records, especially since “Lush Life” was released back in 2015, the wait for Poster Girl left fans hungry. If anything, the wait only proved to make Poster Girl more rewarding. Zara has delivered a sugary collection of pure pop confections that bravely tackle the intimate intricacies of love in all of its forms through a feminist and social media era lens. The album is incredibly consistent without a single dull moment across its twelve tracks. More importantly, the album does not overstay its welcome. Even for those that live and breathe Pop music with a capital P, too much of a good thing can be overwhelming. At just over half an hour, Poster Girl breezes through a plethora of subjects while remaining cohesive.
Poster Girl is impressive for the simple fact that Zara was able to make twelve songs worthy of being on the same album as “Love Me Land.” The album’s opening song, “Love Me Land” is still as sublime as it was back when it was originally released in July of last year. From the combination of haunting whispers and sirens in the introduction to the string accents and deep house influence in the remainder of the song, it’s truly a perfect pop song. The dark sound of the production is a nice contrast to the brightness (“Never thought I would love again/Here I am, lost in Love Me Land”), a strategy that Zara utilizes elsewhere on Poster Girl to her advantage. On “Right Here,” Zara uses a euphoric chorus and dance-pop foundation to air out her frustrations with a distracted significant other. The urgency in the production and her vocal performance are the common ground in the song, but the bubbly instrumental is still in juxtaposition to the annoyance she expresses lyrically. “I’m right here/Why can’t you look at me,” she sings, “you keep your eyes on the screen like you don’t care.” The album’s title track takes a bigger risk with its exploration of contrast, but it pays off. The majority of Poster Girl is concerned with discussing love. For the title track, Zara elects to dedicate the song to her love of weed. Grounded by her flirty falsetto, the move to make this cannabis love song is equal parts hilarious and genius. Zara simultaneously rejects the pressure of a concept album while also playing into the concept of expressing her enjoyment of the drug while being (or not being) the poster girl for a host of different things. This is a classic Pop music move, and that’s what makes the album so fun.
For its more straightforward tracks like the Young Thug-featuring “Talk About Love” and the disco-influenced slice of greatness that is “Need Someone,” Poster Girl remains captivating. When Zara slightly shifts her focus and goes a bit deeper and darker, however, the album really forces you to pay attention. The back half of the album takes a bit of time to find its footing. “I Need Love” is the closest thing to a ballad; it’s a sweet pop song and sounds like something Katy Perry might have recorded in her prime, but it’s not as interesting as the rest of the songs. Similarly, “Look What You’ve Done” will have a lot of appeal for some listeners, but the theme of “look how much better I’m doing after messing with you” is a bit redundant. By the time, the tracklist shifts to “Ruin My Life,” things are back on track. “Ruin My Life” introduces a trio of tracks that dig into a subtle darkness that offsets the effervescent mood of the earlier tracks. Zara repeats the phrase “ruin my life” twelve times in the chorus; instead of crafting a song about wanting to get into something reckless in the name of love, Zara has created an anthem that alludes to the toxicity and codependency that can sometimes plague relationships. “Ruin My Life,” feels akin to the Marshmello-produced “WOW,” another song that thrives due to its darker feel. “Stick With You” continues down that road by exploring the concept of the love bubble that occurs when romance blinds you to what is clear to those on the outside. Zara sings “We in a bubble with only good vibes/Nobody knows us the way that we do.” Again, that slight allusion to the toxic parts of love is the perfect undercurrent to the greater themes of the album. Finally, “FFF” closes out the trio. An acronym that stands for Falling For a Friend, “FFF” is a stunner. Zara’s voice sounds particularly strong on this since the hook melody provides more room for her to belt. Some of the lyrics (“Is this a story arc?/’Cause if it are, it’d be iconic”) are just shy of corny, but they work because they showcase a level of vulnerability that is only attainable in a situation as complex and risky as this.
It’s fitting that Zara brings Poster Girl to a close with “What Happens Here,” a song that revels in its middle fingers and carefreeness. Ultimately, what happens in her love life, whether it be platonic, romantic, or self-love, is her business… and ours too for the 35-minute runtime of the album. Mainstream music trends may be a bit distant from the sonic world of Poster Girl, but with songs this strong, this album will make its presence known around the world in one way or another.
Key Tracks: “Love Me Land” | “FFF” | “Need Someone” | “Right Here” | “Poster Girl”