In a recent interview with The Fader, Swedish enchantress Lykke Li candidly talked about why she doesn’t create outwardly ‘happy’ songs. “For me, the only way to make (music) is to be as honest as possible because if I wanted to hide, um.. and lie, I’d go back to my day job.” Now, that’s not to say that the singer hasn’t made songs that sound joyous, or ultimately affectionate and triumphant. She’s given us unforgettable lines like “Hands down I’m too proud for love/But with eyes shut, it’s you I’m thinking of,” in the unbridled love song “Little Bit“. There was “Dance, Dance, Dance” an unabashed, undeniably melodious, acoustics driven metaphor. And who can ever forget her ode to devotion in “I Follow Rivers“, with it’s beating drums and powerful churchly organ combining as an absolute force of sound. But what was undeniable through her first two projects was that Li was able to strike an appropriate balance in her music, vividly capturing her highest of highs and lowest of lows in a way that only an artist of her caliber could. From her eye-opening 2008 debut LP Youth Novels to her intimate and lustful follow-up Wounded Rhymes three years later, the emotional songstress already seemed to have experienced a lifetime’s worth of love, joy, and subsequent anguish. It’s honestly hard to believe that an old, tormented soul like Li only recently turned 28.
If Youth Novels represents Li as a young artist still trying to find her sound, and Wounded Rhymes serves as the artist rebelling against her inherently troubled nature, then as Li herself puts it, I Never Learn is the aftermath of all of that. Li’s third project is the most accurate embodiment of herself, a confrontational, agonizingly good piece of work that embraces her sadness and acceptance of defeat at the hands of love. There are no poppy selections like “Breaking It Up” or “I’m Good I’m Gone”. Instead the album follows the “Until We Bleed” route, portraying Lykke Li as an embattled, heartbroken heroine who came out on the losing end of a long war. Li once again links up with Björn Yttling, of Peter Björn and John, to handle the production alongside Greg Kurstin who find a devastatingly strong groove within the project.
From the onset, I Never Learn‘s title track lays out the direction of the album with a resounding gut-punch, as Li’s familiar voice soars over furious acoustic riffs and beautiful strings. “Where the blue moon shines, where the tears melt ice/In a sea of guilt, by the fallen stars,” Li vividly sings like recounting the words of an old poem. After the impressive intro ends, the tone is set and we’re immediately locked in by the powerful “No Rest For The Wicked”. A guilt-ridden Li lets loose her potent vocals like a cannon over sweeping instrumentals, desperately proclaiming “I let my true love down/I had his heart, but I broke it every time.” Undoubtedly one of the year’s best songs, the track portrays Li not as the victim, but the antagonist who caused her love to abandon her.
Other tracks solidify Li’s feelings of desolation and despair, like in “Silver Line” with its hypnotic guitar twangs and slow rolling percussion. Even the album’s closer, “Sleeping Alone”, riles up deep emotional feelings almost to the point where the listener feels Li’s experiences as if they were their own. As deep drums and soft piano keys play in the foreground, a wholly melancholy Li pelts out: “How can I get used to, how can I forget you/Will I get used to Sleeping alone?” Later, as if she reconciles with past mistakes, she unconditionally promises to meet her love again. But no song demonstrates Li’s plight and utter helplessness in front of the microphone more than the middle selection, “Gunshot”.
If there’s a knockout blow to be had on the album, track no. 5 is it.Li quietly slithers into focus, carefully reciting the line “I am longing for your poison/Like a cancer for its prey.” The song flows on and the lyrics get deeper as Li stirs the listener into an uneasy, yet relaxed state. But like a siren gloomily luring sailors into her trap, the chorus suddenly erupts and Li enters into full-on power ballad mode. A near violent piano pounds its keys, and a retro guitar line supplemented by a potent set of drums all compliment Li, who is in total control of her strong vocals. The song functions as a testament to the type of pain that is rarely captured in this day and age. Instead of blaming her lover for all of her misery (a la Taylor Swift), Lykke Li owns her faults in a way that is equally refreshing and intoxicating.
Over the past few months Li has made it clear that the album’s creation was due in part to the worst breakup she’s ever had. Who it was she separated from is unclear, partly due to the fact that Li is a very private person in an age where privacy has all but lost its meaning. But what is clear is that I Never Learn is not so much a ‘break up’ album as it is a true reflection of the artist’s current state of being. She can no longer make ‘happy’ songs because that’s no longer who she is, and she’d consider herself a liar if she did otherwise. During the aforementioned Fader interview, Li speaks on how people are taught to strive for happiness and fulfillment, and gives a “cheesy” quote from J.R.R. Tolkien that pretty much sums up everything she’s trying to get across. “He says ‘all those who wander are not lost’, and it’s true,” Li says confidently, a wry smile on her face. And you get the sense that she finds happiness in her unhappiness, like it gives her life purpose. I Never Learn is an extension of that philosophy, and serves as an admirable construction of music, as well as a tangible piece of Lykke Li’s heart.
Final Verdict: 8/10
(The featured image was via Pitchfork, taken by Andreas Öhlund)