Image: Justin Higuchi via Flikr

Can’t Tame Her: Zara Larsson heads an evening of frivolous, feel-good pop

O2 Academy, Birmingham, 18 February 2024

Last week, we found out the UK finished 2023 in recession. Donald Trump is encouraging Russia to invade underperforming NATO members. Margot Robbie, somehow, didn’t get nominated for an Oscar. In whichever direction you turn at the moment, a sense of gloom prevails.

Thank goodness for Zara Larsson.

On a nondescript Sunday evening in February, a real fizz of anticipation laps the darkened interior of Birmingham’s O2 Academy. Chatter is unrestrained; laughs are un-stifled. A healthy mix of genders and ages alike populates the space, and following an impressive warm-up from fellow Swede, Yaeger, the packed room’s speakers vibrate with overtures from the likes of Dua Lipa and Troye Sivan. It’s clear the good people of the West Midlands are here for one thing, and one thing only: a thoroughly hearty serving of up-tempo, dance-and-scream-and-shout-a-long pop.

And with Larsson, we’ve become accustomed to getting, quite simply, just that. Lots of fun, lots of colours, lots of good vibes. Mercifully, her fourth and latest studio album, Venus, doesn’t buck this trend.

As the backdrop screen transitions from the headline act’s embossed, glitzy, silver signature to the fantastical world of Venus’ album art (seemingly created using SandroBotticelli.gpt), Larsson is revealed from a sliding box by her crowd of dancers. At this point the only thing missing from the cod Eurovision, high-camp spectacle is Graham Norton wryly announcing her to the stage.

A raucous greeting accompanies the unpackaging; however, it’s not given the time to settle. Launching into the album’s eponymous track, the all-female ensemble of dancers and musicians – guitarist, drummer, and synth – strut and sparkle. The strong opening blends seamlessly into ‘I Would Like’, a high-paced, club banger from Larsson’s 2017 album So Good. The ultra-slick transitions between songs are a theme of the night – energy is forbidden from dipping; silence is to be kept to a minimum.

Understandably, given Venus’ newness, the first half of the set is predominantly made up of material from the 2021-release Poster Girl and Larsson’s many impressive collaborations including ‘Girls Like’ (Tinie Tempah), ‘Symphony’ (Clean Bandit), and ‘Words’ (Alesso). That, aged just 26, Larsson has already worked with artists of such clout as the King of Ibiza, David Guetta; the Prince of Afrobeats, Wizkid; and the Potentates of K-pop, BTS, reflects her objective talent and drive.

However, it also reflects her experience. If she seems like an old head on young shoulders, well, it’s because she is. Having won Sweden’s Got Talent in 2008, Larsson has held a spot in the public’s consciousness from the age of 10 – first in her native Sverige, then expanding her appeal to a global audience in 2015 with 1 billion-times-Spotify-streamed ‘Lush Life’.

Three studio albums later, and we have Venus, an even more assured and distilled version of Larsson. In the second half of the evening, ‘The Healing’ is stripped back with dancers out of sight. The soft keys accompaniment allows a moment of vulnerability, a chance for calm in the eye of the dance-pop storm as a sea of phone torches washes around the room.

But all things quiet must come to an end. ‘None of These Guys’ marches along with a thumping, distorted base, and yet, when performed live, surprisingly provides a strong platform for Larsson to show off her powerful vocals. Rolling into ‘Ammunition’, one of the singer’s self-confessed favourites from the album, Larsson’s vocals are more drawn out, smoothing to give the song an almost Rihanna-like feel.

In ‘You Love Who You Love’, a looped guitar riff provides an unshakeably catchy rhythm over which the audience belts the lyrics’ relationship advice in chorus: “Girl give him up, I’m tellin’ you as a friend / What he’s putting you through is too much!”. Frustration is replaced by intense conviction in ‘End of Time’ with Larsson singing from a mic stand for the first time in the evening, her troupe stepping back, backing this time coming from the crowd clapping dutifully on the beat.

A costume change adds more sparkles to the final proceedings as we are transported to Ushuaïa in the middle of July – ‘On My Love’ means it’s #GuettaTime. Everything is turned to eleven; the time is now to max out on fervent, head-banging energy.

The evening ends, fittingly, where the album started. ‘Can’t Tame Her’, the first single to be released from Venus over a year ago, is a big finish. Echoes of The Weeknd’s synth-electropop sensation ‘Blinding Lights’ reverberate throughout the venue. This is addictively fun dance music. “Said she’s gonna party all night / And you … can’t tame her!” In an alternate universe with no early last train, the song’s protagonist is every one of the 3,000 people in attendance.



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