Lykke Li’s music is full of captivating contradictions. Her gentle, sometimes ethereal voice is set against the backdrop of aggressive rhythms. A spirit of folk-pop simplicity stands alongside the textures of electronica. Lykke Li sings about innocent love one second and unbridled sexuality the next. The full range of Li’s gloriously inconsistent art was on display at Chicago’s Vic Theatre.

From the first notes of show opener “Jerome,” a tune found near the end of the Wounded Rhymes album, the tone for the entire evening was set. Li, sporting plain, black attire, moved about a stage decked out in dark fabrics. Fog machines and strobe lights created a gothic, furtive atmosphere. While the album version of “Jerome” features a brief intro, the live show began with several minutes of percussion layers before Li started singing. This slow build was a harbinger of things to come. Many of the songs throughout the night took their time developing, with the band building the rhythmic texture one layer at a time. I noticed immediately how bass-heavy the mix was on this opening tune. The relentless thumping of the subs ultimately overtook Li’s vocal and the band’s layers of sound on many songs.

Following “Jerome,” Li and company reached back to the repetitive “I’m Good, I’m Gone” from 2008’s Youth Novels. The easy poppiness was a nice contrast to the rhythmic assault of the previous tune. Starting with a Ronettes-inspired drum pattern, “Sadness Is a Blessing” highlighted Li’s ability to interpret a complex, soaring melody. “I Follow Rivers” was the first moment of the night in which all the musical elements really came together. Li managed to project her soaring melody past the exotic percussion, atmospheric synths and heavy bass line.

“Dance, Dance, Dance,” despite its title, didn’t really inspire much bodily movement amongst the crowd. At this moment I realized that the audience wasn’t as invested in the music as I might have hoped. While the stark juxtapositions of diverse elements in Li’s art can have a distancing effect for the listener, there are plenty of accessible entry points. The crowd seemed more content to observe the music from afar than to actively engage in the energy of the songs.

Li changed the mood considerably with “Silent My Song,” replete with doo-wop inspired background vocals. “I Know Places” featured Li playing autoharp sans her backing band. This solo performance was followed by a rather maudlin version of “Unchained Melody.” Li is known for her eccentric cover tunes, but this one was striking in its conventionality.

Fortunately, the pace picked up again with the tropical, steel-drum intro riff of “Little Bit.” “Love Out Of Lust” and “Rich Kids Blues” both fell into a kind of mid-tempo stupor. Li quickly made up for this ennui with her final two songs, though. “Youth Knows No Pain” started with an unexpected sample from Kanye West’s hit “Power” featuring Li’s vocal distorted through a megaphone. While this routine could have easily come off as gimmicky, somehow Li made it seem playful. The set proper ended with “Get Some,” arguably the artist’s most famous song at the moment. As Li moved sensually about the stage belting out lines as over-the-top as, “Like a shotgun needs an outcome/ I’m your prostitute, you gon’ get some!,” the audience responded with something resembling actual appreciative enthusiasm. The encore was “Unrequited Love,” which starts with the appropriate line, “Once again it’s happening.” Musically, this gentle ballad was an unexpected choice to top off an evening full of big rhythms and loud sonic textures. On the other hand, when has Lykke Li ever been easy to predict?

[Photos: Christhian Ferenc]

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