Lykke Li

Lykke Li Perfects the Art of the Sulk

Maura Johnston

By Maura Johnston

on 04.29.14 in Features

I Never Learn

Lykke Li

Few singers sulk as grandly as Lykke Li. On “Youth Knows No Pain,” from her second album Wounded Rhymes, she stormed and shrieked in a way that belied the numbness of which she sang; on that same album’s “Sadness is a Blessing,” she sang a Spector-deluxe love song to her own heartbreak. Even on the playful “Little Bit,” from her debut, the filigrees of strummed guitar and her tentative voice spoke to her reticence toward letting love in. With her third album, the briskly bleak I Never Learn, she refines that sulk session even further; the album begins with a cascade of acoustic guitars and pinballs from power balladry to resigned moping, with gloom the only through line.

‘What is heartbreak if not a great excuse to go big?’

“Where the first album is about wanting love, and then the second album is about not getting the love that you desire, I think this third album is about walking away and fucking up,” Li told Billboard. The title alone gives that away — the phrase I Never Learn is self-lacerating enough on its own. Yet the album — which was, in part, the result of a breakup and subsequent move from Sweden to Los Angeles — doesn’t sound like the sort of self-loathing slog you might hear from a friend at the end of whiskey-soaked post-breakup evening; perhaps because it’s short (its nine songs clock in at around 33 minutes) and gorgeously produced, it comes off as relatably self-lacerating, from the deceptively sunny acoustic guitars that open it all the way to its weary closing line.

For much of the album, Li operates in familiar territory; “No Rest For The Wicked” sweeps and stomps, Li berating herself for breaking someone’s heart and letting him down; “Just Like a Dream” is similarly broad, although its hope peters out with a note that descends into low-low-low-C gloom. The midtempo “Gunshot” has a deliberate gait that recalls both “Youth Knows No Pain” and defiantly bummed-out radio staples of yore like Johnny Hates Jazz’s “Shattered Dreams”; the sound of Li’s voice in chorus with itself, likening an open heart to one that’s had a bullet blasted through it, is enough to distract the listener from the way the drums sound. Eventually it becomes obvious: they’re meant to resemble blasts from a pistol. (Greg Kurstin, who worked on Tegan & Sara’s similarly surly Heartthrob, produced the track.) It might be overkill — particularly when paired with lyrics like “I am longing for your poison/ Like a cancer for its prey” — but at the same time, what is heartbreak if not a great excuse to go big?

The album’s emotional climax — and biggest stylistic left turn — comes with “Never Gonna Love Again,” which opens with Li barely enunciating her sadness (“Baby, can you hear the rain fall on me?”) over isolated chords. But then it opens up into power-ballad territory, thanks to an instantly indelible chorus —which begins with “Every time the rain falls, think of me” — that should serve as a Facebook status update for anyone burned by a recent romance. It’s followed up by “Heart Of Steel,” on which some Route 66 guitars and a ramshackle chorale offer something almost resembling musical redemption — although getting to that level goes hand-in-hand with her singing of being closed off to the possibility of letting anyone in.

In the Billboard interview, Li talks about having a breakdown while making the record; she bought a bed and an existential crisis ensued — because her time in Los Angeles was temporary, getting rid of the bed would be inevitable. The woozy “Sleeping Alone” closes out I Never Learn, and it ends with Li singing, in a voice that’s more resigned than hopeful, “We’ll meet again, we’ll meet again.” On almost any other song, that refrain would imply the promise of reconciliation and romance down the road, but in Lykke Li’s hands the idea of further encounters becomes an existential burden that hangs over any potential future; there is no “walking away” for long enough from those who have driven a semi through your soul. There is only the possibility of having one’s heart reopened for just long enough for it to be rearranged in the wrong way and left behind, aching and confused by the sensations coursing through it.