Review: Lykke Li, I Never Learn

I Never Learn, Lykke Li's third full-length album, is her most consistent collection of songs yet. So why is it so uninteresting?
Lykke Li I Never Learn Album Art

opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

“Don’t blow your pants before I go down” were the first words we heard from Lykke Li’s sophomore album, 2011’s Wounded Rhymes. They kicked off “Get Some,” a furious tempest of a pop song that’s about 50% percussion, 40% attitude, and 10% melody, and which served to emphatically declare Li’s artistic about-face. No more of the homespun, wistful little electropop tunes she and producer Bjorn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn & John fame) served up on 2008’s Youth Novels! So “Get Some” declared. It hollered: No more of that affectedly precious falsetto or lyrics about being “shy, shy, shy”! The song was highly effective in its effort to rebrand Li from lonesome bedroom songstress to willful, empowered force-of-nature pop star. Trouble was, Wounded Rhymes as a whole sounded less like a reinvention of Li’s persona and a lot more like the follow-up you’d expect from the creator of Youth Novels.

Its least lovelorn track, “Rich Kids Blues,” was its obvious nadir; its biggest hit, “I Follow Rivers,” was all moony-eyed obsessive devotion – not for nothing did the Magician’s excellent dance remix wind up on the soundtrack of last year’s love=pain romantic drama Blue Is The Warmest Colour. There were actually songs titled “Unrequited Love” and (really?) “Sadness Is A Blessing.”

In interviews promoting Wounded Rhymes, Li spoke a lot about wanting to be seen as a stronger, more independent and powerful female artist. Yet most of the strength displayed on Wounded Rhymes, “Get Some”’s witty inversion of clichés about prostitution aside, come from the instruments – the drums on that album, in particular, still sound awesome and are absolutely taking no shit. Li herself might have mostly dropped that Joanna Newsom whisper in favor of a more natural-sounding, muscular alto, but she didn’t successfully twist her feelings of dependence and abjection around into figures of empowerment.

Consequently, the well-received Wounded Rhymes has aged quite poorly. It’s an album marked by a curious dissonance between the ideas it actually communicates and the ones it claims to communicate, between the sentiments it embodies and the palette of sounds it deploys. At its finest moments, it’s entertaining but schizophrenic.

Lykke Li

I Never Learn is the title of Li’s third full-length, and it’s a telling one. Li seems to have figured out that the themes that interest her most are the ones that characterized her earliest work on Youth Novels: romance and its (very plentiful) discontents. That is to say, the title is telling not because Li never learns where her strengths lie (she finally has), but because her strengths lie in illuminating that quirk of the human condition whereby people never learn, hopelessly repeating the same relationships and seeking happiness where it’s not to be found.

“I want to be known as a songwriter,” Li stated in a recent interview, distinguishing between that role and the pop singer. That’s not an aim inherently at odds with being en empowering female role model, of course, and I’d argue that I Never Learn fulfills both goals better than its predecessor did just one. Here, Li seems more baffled and tortured by her inexplicably self-destructive sexual yearning, more interested in understanding its underlying sources and conditions, than on Wounded Rhymes, where she tried to transmute loneliness into proud independence but simply ended up glamorizing her powerlessness. It was against this tendency that Wounded Rhymes’s few bursts of outright aggression (namely “Get Some”) were directed, and that’s why they rang so false in context. The more carefully plotted, thematically consistent I Never Learn has no need for such moments.

But then, “Get Some” was a lot of fun, too. The bathwater may be gone at last, but so is the baby: I Never Learn finds Li positively maturing as an artist, but she seems to have lost her sense of humor along the way. Not one of these odes to misery, failures of love, and never learning qualifies for the adjective “upbeat,” and looking over the lyrics, I couldn’t find a single joke, witticism, or even instance of wordplay. Those aren’t necessary qualities, of course, but I Never Learn sure could use a bit of spring in its step – it’s oppressively dour.

Lykke Li Made of Stone

On the musical end of things, the sonic M.O. is “massive.” I Never Learn is co-produced by Yttling, Li, and Greg Kurstin (Sia, Kelly Clarkson), but it’s Kurstin’s unsubtle, maximalist pop touch that’s most obvious; together, the three make the record sound like something a depressed Paul Epworth (who’s worked with obvious Lykke Li triangulation points Adele and Florence + The Machine) might churn out. Why use one track when a dozen identical tracks will do? Why go unadorned when you could reverb every single instrument to within an inch of its life? These nine ballads aren’t too busy, but they are certainly overblown. I Never Learn is a near-unwavering streamroller of cavernous sound that’s blaringly loud even at its most delicate moments, constantly striving for torch-song catharsis at any cost. It’s very pretty and almost immediately suffocating, and it makes for a toxic combination when taken with Li’s resolutely solemn performance.

What’s it all in service of? I Never Learn might be more consistent than Li’s previous work but it’s not especially interesting. In fact, it frequently comes off as simply whiny, like a down-and-out friend who asks for advice just so she can self-pityingly poke holes in any consolation offered to her. There’s little to no weight given to the personalities of the people who have hurt her and hardly any detail on what went wrong – throughout, Li solipsistically focuses instead on how bummed out she is. It’s difficult to imagine listeners being willing to invest time and effort in an album this monochromatic, this bleak, and this glacially paced without the payoff of bruising insight or genuine catharsis. Does emphasizing Li’s strengths as a songwriter – strengths which, I must stress, were never unapparent to begin with – require her to become so dull and austere? She seems to think so, but she doesn’t find anything else to compensate with.

That’s a shame, because I Never Learn works, track-by-track, from start to finish. Li has lost none of her knack for penning a great melody, and her producers (this is her third outing with Yttling) know just how to treat her vocals. Heard in isolation, these songs all have something to recommend them: the orchestral flourishes of “Just Like A Dream” deserve to be highlighted; the title track and "Never Gonna Love Again" each flaunt unique hooks and majestic, sepia-toned string arrangements; “Heart Of Steel” does Florence Welch’s whole mystical-gospel thing at least as well as Welch herself. The dark, nervous “Gunshot,” with its solid wall of closely harmonized vocals, towering drums, and mournful guitars, is easily the album’s most effective expression of bottomless despair; "Love Me Like I'm Not Made Of Stone" is the only time when Li's not multi-tracked to all hell, and all the more rewarding for it. Single “No Rest For The Wicked” is surely one of the finest songs in Li’s whole catalogue, its lilting piano providing the album’s sole ray of light and its gigantic chorus aspiring to the defiant snarl of some of Li’s prior hits. But for the third time in a row, Li’s written good songs that struggle to retain appeal or relevancy when gathered together on a full-length. Heard consecutively, these songs sound disappointingly like one another, and while one good belter about the pain of unrequited love is a blessing, nine in a row turns out to be real drag. C-

Thoughts? Comments? @pmablog

Originally posted April 29, 2014.