Monday, May 5, 2014

album review: 'i never learn' by lykke li

I've talked before about my general aversion to cutesy, small-minded indie pop, especially the type that sticks close to conventional instrumentation and plays up the twee element to eleven - but at the same time, it's a genre that has other facets, and subverting those expectations can often be just as rewarding. I've talked before about St. Vincent, who undercut her classically-inspired instrumentation with subversive lyrics and experimental edge, but she's not the only one who has tackled this playing field.

This brings us to Lykke Li, an artist who I originally expected to dislike a lot more than I do, especially off of her first album Youth Novels. It was a minimalist, underwritten exploration of young, immature emotion, all delivered through Lykke Li's high girlish vocals - and yet it worked. Lykke Li had a great grasp of melody, a phenomenal grip on atmosphere thanks to stellar production, and the balance she held between saccharine sweetness and unnerving wisdom was impressive. And in a natural step forward, her second album Wounded Rhymes improved every element, deepening and expanding the soundscapes while bringing forward a much more assertive presence behind the microphone and cleaning up some of the clumsier songwriting. It's definitely a solid record that showed Lykke Li was a force in indie pop to be reckoned with, and I was psyched for her newest album I Never Learn, not just for the album but for the potential mainstream breakthrough it could represent. After all, she was only getting better and if there was a time where minimalist, melody-driven indie pop could have a crack at the mainstream, it'd be now. As great as 'I Follow Rivers' was - and make no mistake, that song's amazing - it came out in 2011, the charts were still locked in the club boom, they weren't ready for Lykke Li yet. So, I picked up her newest album and gave it a few listens - is this the smash for which we've been waiting?

Honestly, it's pretty damn close, because I Never Learn by Lykke Li is a great album that might just be her most focused, cohesive, and powerful work to date. And while I'm not quite sure it approaches the upper echelons of my favourite records of this year, it's certainly close and definitely earns a recommendation from me. 

Now the first thing you should all understand is that this album really does function as a companion piece to the previous two records, as Lykke Li has described them as a trilogy discussing similar themes - and honestly, it completely makes sense. Youth Novels was simultaneously immature and too wise for its age, and Wounded Rhymes used the catalyst of heartbreak to bring a little more maturity to the proceedings, but it's I Never Learn that shows Lykke Li has finally grown up. The cuter elements of her vocals have been completely excised to embrace her richer, lower range, and coupled with the expansive production that lets her voice echo over the track, it places her both in a position of sweeping power and lonely vulnerability. If I were to quibble over the vocal production, I feel the lo-fi pickup on the microphone on 'Love Me Like I'm Not Made Of Stone' is a little misplaced to emphasize intimacy, but that's minor and the song still works with it.

But it's not just the vocal production that emphasizes that 'larger' sound - the instrumentation and production do a solid job of it on their own. The melody lines, as always, are memorable and effective, mostly relying on Li's vocals but still occupying visible presence in a mix that could have easily swallowed them in reverb. The keyboard lines are solid and beautifully textured, the strings are well-balanced, the backing vocals are harmonious, and, without hyperbole, this might be some of the best percussion production I've heard this year. The booming tremor of the bass drum, the cracks of the snare on 'Gunshot', and all of it feels real and immediate and cohesive. This is most courtesy of Greg Kurstin, who brings all of his chops he brought to Adele's 21 to the table, and man, it shows. If I will have an issue with the production, it's in the guitars: while I did like the more acoustic leans in the title track which felt burnished and rich, I wasn't the big fan of the guitar tonal choice on 'Silverline', which combined with the simplistic progression makes it one of the weaker tracks on the album.

But even that track is solid, mostly thanks to lyrics and themes. As I said, this is the record where Lykke Li grows up, and the most important part of that is that her framing has grown up too. She's always been very effective at conveying vulnerability through her music and tone, but here her framing adds complexity to that vulnerability, with acknowledgements that some of the failures in her relationships have been her own fault. There's a harshness to the honesty on this album that is both refreshing and a little heartbreaking, and since Lykke Li is that good of a performer, you can feel real sympathy for her on songs like 'No Rest For The Wicked' and 'Gunshot', two songs that plainly paint her as the problem in these complicated relationships. Take 'Just Like A Dream', a song where she knows the relationship is doomed and she's willing to leave, but deep down she still wants that one last night together and for that relationship to mean something to the guy in the end. It takes a song like 'Never Gonna Love Again' and confronts her fears of intimacy in saying how if she keeps running, she will never love again.

And really, it's the humanity that lends this album a whole other level of weight, which comes forth best in the final two tracks. 'Heart Of Steel' is a plea for that vulnerability and a pledge not to be bitter, even when she's alone, accepting her own frailties and humanity even though she knows it'll end up hurting her. And the album ends with 'Sleeping Alone', a heartbreaking song how she's lonely and she doesn't want to get used to being on her own, but she'll accept it and hold onto hope that she'll find that love in the end, time willing. This is how you pull off a satisfying emotional arc, songwriters, and the fact that this album nails it so effectively in less than forty minutes is incredible.

Guys, I'm not normally one to be part of the hype machine - if I think an album sucks, I'll tell you regardless of critical opinions, and if I love an album that everyone else can't stand, I'll stand behind it. This time, for once, most critics and I agree: Lykke Li's I Never Learn is extremely good and one of the best indie pop albums you'll hear this year. It's a strong 8/10 from me and a high recommendation, especially as a thoughtful, mature, and genuinely heartfelt breakup album. And Lykke Li, if by some strange coincidence you see this review, convince your label to push 'Gunshot' as a single to mainstream radio, because not only is this the perfect time, it'll also likely be one of my favourite songs of the year. 

Folks, 'I Follow Rivers' was the opening shot - the album 'I Never Learn' is the full cavalry.

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