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Lykke Li: I Never Learn

Lykke Li: I Never Learn

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Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Lykke Li no longer wants to be a pop star, if she ever did. Her 2008 debut album Youth Novels contained more than a few moments of pop, such as “Little Bit” and “Dance Dance Dance,” albeit a skewed, quirky kind. Her 2011 follow-up Wounded Rhymes didn’t, though it still largely held the same accessible tone and production, courtesy of her frequent collaborator Björn Yttling (the middle guy from Peter, Bjorn and John). While Yttling remains as producer (credited along with Greg Kurstin and Li herself), her third full length release, I Never Learn, largely abandons any attempt at pop music in favor of something more like a confessional singer-songwriter approach. It says a great deal about Li’s charisma as a performer that I Never Learn is at least as compelling as her previous albums, even narrowing her palette.

But honestly, the pop star role never would have suited her. The Swedish musician may have glamour and style (she’s recently dabbled in acting and modeling), but there’s always been something off-kilter about Li. Maybe it’s her heavily accented vocals; maybe the overtly eclectic instrumentation; maybe it’s even her contribution to the soundtrack for a Twilight film. The role of singer-songwriter suits Li far better, focusing as it does overwhelmingly on her distinctive voice and the space around it. I Never Learn sounds cavernous, like the singer is trapped in a place simultaneously enormous and suffocating. She’s frequently multi-tracked and vocally dominates the album, yet this release deliberately avoids the sleekness of her previous work for a sparer, cleaner sound. The production is paradoxical, in the best kind of way; it sounds both raw and lush, full and yet often cut down to the simplest elements of Li’s voice and words.

From the first track, I Never Learn embodies this juxtaposition. The opening title track begins with a simple strum of an acoustic guitar, but it’s not a gentle sound; the chords sound metallic and almost abrasive, strings ready to scrape and wound. Li joins in by intoning, “Where the blue moon shines/ Where the tears melt ice/ In a sea of guilt/ Lonely chimes, sing of pain/ There’s a storm, only love remains.” As she sings, the production grows denser, with synthesizers and an autoharp accompanying, but that guitar never ceases. The highlight of the album, “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” takes the opposite tack with almost the same elements. Again, over a single acoustic guitar, Li makes the title plea, but the simplicity does not expand. Instead, it remains focused on an impossibly heartbreaking vocal performance, Li sounding absolutely devastated and devastating in equal turn.

I Never Learn is enormously affecting on individual tracks, but it’s a bit front-loaded. “I Never Learn,” “No Rest for the Wicked” and “Just Like a Dream” are some of the best tracks Li has yet produced, with “Just Like a Dream” boasting a hazy, dreamlike chorus that highlights her vocals to their best, and “Heart of Steel” adds a choral, nearly gospel backing vocal. But a number of songs like “Silverline” and “Gunshot” are simply not distinctive enough melodies (especially compared to the preceding), and closer “Sleeping Alone,” while clearly meant to be a heartbreakingly simple finale to the album, is one of its least interesting. Fortunately, a few weaker tracks don’t diminish what is a leap forward for an interesting artist. I Never Learn is a simple album, but that by no means makes it less complicated or rich.

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