Album Review: Zara Larsson – Venus

[Sommer House; 2024]

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus – we are all aware of this outdated idiom that seemed to underline dating dynamics from the days of yore. However, on Swedish pop star Zara Larsson’s new album Venus, she is solely focused on the latter planet’s associations with love, femininity and a newfound independence, rather than what may be occurring elsewhere in the galaxy.

Venus marks Larsson’s first album under her own imprint Sommer House. This might imply a consolidation of vision, yet she equally dives into production both throwback, modern and futuristic. Larsson has a serious set of pipes – she can hit high notes, access a surprising raspiness and indulge in R&B-influenced runs with ease. However, as has been consistent throughout her discography, Larsson has yet to fully commit to a musical concept. Much like previous album Poster Girl had a partially-complete puzzle indicating a nostalgic dance-pop project and So Good was quite a mishmash of genres, Venus comprises similar musical miscellany which compromises the structure of the project.

Lead single “Can’t Tame Her” places an earnest finger on the pulse of 80s revivalism and beneath its narrative of a partying woman indulging in unfettered freedom is, perhaps, a little metaphorical nod to Larsson taking tighter control in her music career such as establishing her own label and purchasing her masters. With catchy melodies underpinning alien synths and lower piano, she victoriously proclaims in the chorus: “No you can’t tame a girl / ‘Cause she runs her whole world.” It works well as both the album’s lead single and opener, establishing Larsson as being a new, freer phase in her journey.

Similar nostalgic production occurs in tracks such as “End Of Time” – a blissful Euro-dance track complete with cinematic strings, an emotional centrepiece and fist-pumping chorus; “I want your love to start a fire / And keep it burning through the night”. It is reminiscent of artists such as Alcazar and Steps who often imbue their pop music with heart. Additionally, the album’s euphoric and sparkling title track is refreshing and spacey while still being a wink to classic pop production.

Album highlight “Ammunition” is an assertive proclamation about boldly fighting for your relationship even as problems arise. Darker, modern and sleeker, the track deceptively begins with murky piano notes and a pared back atmosphere. Once the beat arrives with its deep bass notes and stuttering synths, the song comes alive as she sings: “You’ve been distant / I wanna give us a shot / Please give me, give me, give me ammunition.” Ending with a cool instrumental breakdown, this track feels galactically metropolitan, as if taking place in an interplanetary club.

Another track that gives some necessary ‘oomph’ is the unapologetically campy and clubby “None of These Guys”. Undoubtedly appropriate for the runway – it is easy to envision strutting down a catwalk with such glamorous production – Larsson finds confidence in the fact that her man is the best in the room. With a glint of humour (“None of these guys got nothing on mine / They’re either too short or either too high”), the track is not taking itself seriously. “You Love Who You Love” edges slightly into quirky indie-pop territory with its funky guitar that seamlessly blends into the upbeat production. On the track, Larsson is exasperated at a friend dating somebody toxic; “When will you use your common sense? / He drags you down, instead of compliments / You know he isn’t heaven-sent” – almost as if playing the role of a sassy friend in a romantic comedy. It also has an excellent dramatic bridge where she sings bluntly: “I sound like a broken record / But you need to figure it out.” Such tracks ultimately prove that Larsson’s dabble with more forward-facing production is a strength that should be explored in future projects.

Venus does indulge in the slower side of pop to varying degrees of quality. The baroque and theatrical “Nothing”, for example, explores a relationship crumbling beneath uncertainty. On the track, Larsson knows something is amiss (“Trying to be patient / Giving you space / But seems like your mind’s halfway out the door”) and is tired of her partner’s denial. The production is intense with its swelling orchestrations and her emotive vocal performance, which emphasises how well she can belt; (“When you say it’s nothing / It’s never nothing). It is one of the best ballads she has ever done and it still aligns with Venus’s campier side.

On “Soundtrack” she name-drops tracks by artists such as Lana Del Rey, Joni Mitchell and Radiohead as she sings about the romantic memories inevitably tied to music. Rather than take a bitter approach, she finds a reluctant comfort in these songs, despite them being associated with a failed relationship; “I know that we can’t go back / But we’ll always have the soundtrack.” This ballad is pretty and vocally impressive but still feels a bit saccharine. Then there is the album closer “The Healing”, which has this romantic voyage petering out with a very straightforward piano ballad. Although this is an earnest track about working on and healing yourself before pursuing love, it jarringly follows “Venus” – a track incandescent with happiness over being in love – which makes for a confusing conclusion.

With that being said, the only truly egregious track on this project is the dated “On My Love” featuring production from David Guetta. Unfortunately, the track is reminiscent of a particular sound of late 00s dance music that feels too robotic and soulless sonics-wise, despite Larsson’s powerful vocals.

Venus finds Larsson serving energy and vulnerability in equal measure, however, still giving the listener an uneven experience when it comes to song choices and sequencing. There is a story on this album – an arc from loneliness to romance – that could be told with some tracklist alterations. Ultimately though, what unites this project is a sense of love and all its facets – good, frustrating and occasionally ugly – that still launches towards the stars in its production and vocal performances. The solar system is endless and while Larsson has successfully mined some excellent inspiration from Venus, it may be time for her to leave her comfort zone and explore more alien territories in the future.