In an interview with Pitchfork last year, Swedish indie chanteuse Lykke Li expressed a frustration common among young and talented female artists, particularly after the release of an acclaimed debut album. “Because you’re a woman, the music industry puts you in another corner. I want to be fighting with the men. I want to be amongst the men, topless, throwing things onstage.” It’s the sentiment once echoed by Fiona Apple after Tidal (“This world is bullshit.”), by PJ Harvey after Dry (see the stark rage of Rid of Me); it’s the same anger that coursed through all of Sleater-Kinney’s albums, the same anger that led Robyn to form her own record label.
If anger inspired Lykke Li’s startling sophomore album, Wounded Rhymes, the only clue is the palpable sense that she has something to prove, to herself and to those who glibly used a word like “cutesy” to describe Youth Novels. Lykke Li was just 21 when she released Youth Novels in 2008, and youth was evident in more than the album’s title. Youth Novels was as uneven as it was promising. Like Apple, who followed the so-so Tidal with the remarkable When the Pawn, Li has consolidated and amplified the best aspects of her debut. Cute? The fully formed and full-bodied Wounded Rhymes is downright ferocious, a confident and swaggering statement from an artist coming into her own. In the Pitchfork interview, Li promised her new album would be “darker” and “moodier.” Its lyrics would be “heavier.” Boy, did she deliver.
Producer Björn Yttling (of Peter, Björn, and John) eschews the sparseness of Youth Novels and instead builds a Wall of Sound in a garage, combining glorious girl-group melodies with the lo-fi ethos of Nuggets-era DIY rock. On the album’s opener “Youth Knows No Pain,” a sinuous Hammond organ hook charges forth atop the hollow echo of pounding drums and the rattle of a tambourine. Li’s forceful, open-throated vocal embodies the song’s title. There is no pain here, only intransigent defiance. This is rock and roll, minus an electric guitar. Wounded Rhymes’ lead single, “Get Some,” is even more menacing. “I’m your prostitute,” Li declares – as a threat, mind you – while the chug of the song’s bass line and its tribal drumbeats stomp underneath.
Lykke Li’s girl-group influences are most obvious on Wounded Rhymes’ two best tracks. With only a pitter-patter beat and a simple guitar arpeggio as her accompaniment, Li sings lines from the tear-stained pages of her teenage diary on “Unrequited Love.” The shoo-wop-shoo-wop background vocal is an unnecessary flourish, almost too obvious. The song’s raw longing is devastating enough to carry it. Despite its lyrics (“sadness is my boyfriend, oh sadness I’m your girl”), the chorus to “Sadness is a Blessing” recalls the exuberance of The Ronettes’ “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up.” True to the girl-group genre, sorrow is delivered as triumphantly as joy.
Wounded Rhymes peaks with “Sadness is a Blessing.” Its final three tracks never quite match the quality of the rest of the album. “I Know Places” comes close when the early-Dylan ballad gives way to a ghostly choral incantation. But “Jerome” and “Silent My Song” suffer in comparison to highlights like “I Follow Rivers” and “Rich Kids Blues.” They come off as filler, albeit high-quality filler, only here to bring Wounded Rhymes to the ten-track mark.
For as much as Lykke Li looks to the 1960s for her inspiration, Wounded Rhymes sounds thoroughly modern. With Yttling’s aid, Li sends bubblegum pop melodies through the prism of garage rock, and the result is music as muscular as it is moving. Wounded Rhymes is a leap forward for Lykke Li, and perhaps, a stepping-stone to an unqualified masterpiece. Her very own Extraordinary Machine.