Thursday, June 14, 2018

album review: 'so sad so sexy' by lykke li

So a few weeks back when I reviewed the newest record from CHVRCHES I called out how the majority of the production issues of that project were endemic to producer Greg Kurstin, a talented producer that has an unfortunate habit of swallowing his mixes in reverb and emphasizing percussion over melodies. But I would be remiss to not call out the moments when his approach actually works, and there's one example I always return to: 2014's I Never Learn by Lykke Li, a bleakly emotive breakup album that somehow sustained real melodic hooks amidst the hollow darkness that may not have been the follow-up guaranteed to snag mainstream attention after 'I Follow Rivers' snagged attention in 2011, but that wasn't necessary. To this day I still consider I Never Learn as Lykke Li's most potent, cohesive, and emotionally gripping project to date, one record where Greg Kurstin's production seemed to really fit...

And thus I can't help but see a certain irony that four years later, just like Lily Allen did for her new album No Shame - a project destined for the Trailing Edge, stay tuned for it there - Lykke Li ditched Kurstin for her new album so sad so sexy for a much bigger team. And I'll admit I was a little concerned about this one: seemingly like the mainstream-adjacent follow-up seven years later incorporating elements of R&B and trap with rap guest features, this was about the furthest thing I was expecting from Lykke Li... but I won't deny I wasn't curious. So alright, what did we get with so sad so sexy?

...well, this was a disappointment - a big one, as a matter of fact. And for a while I thought i'd just put this on the Trailing Edge and move on to other records that are more interesting and unique, but the more listens I gave so sad so sexy the more I felt that I really had to do a full review, even I'm going to wind up keeping it fairly brief. So here it is: I'm not quite sure I'd call this record a sell-out for Lykke Li, but it is absolutely a departure from her more richly compelling indie pop sound to something that seems to fit somewhere between Lana Del Rey and your average mainstream R&B starlet, and while Lykke Li can be a more thoughtful songwriter than both typically are, so sad so sexy is a considerable step below her usual quality.

And a key component explaining why really starts with the content and framing, because Lykke Li has always leaned into abstraction or lyrics that can seem broadly sketched in comparison with her more emotive delivery. And one of the reasons why I Never Learn could leverage that to her advantage was because the production alternated between cavernous depth and pickups that were almost uncomfortably raw and intimate - it was a record that leaned harder on her performance and had production to intensify and amplify that outside of writing that might feel a bit thin. And yet across the board this record steps away from that, and it becomes most immediately noticeable in Lykke Li's performance - what was once raw is traded for something bleary-eyed and detached, which some critics have snidely called sadgirl pop and unfortunately the descriptor can feel apt. And while the thick multi-tracking is still often present, it's pressed through flattened and warping layers to add an intoxicated texture to the vocals that not only fail to capture any sort of sensuality or glamour but also fail to disguise how utterly underwhelming her delivery is. Hell, there are songs where the breathy cooing could work, but that would require remotely consistent vocal mixing and fidelities, or in some cases just ensuring the vocal texture doesn't top out in the mix, an unfortunate issue carrying over from I Never Learn and substantially less excusable here given how hard this record is trying to cultivate pop/R&B elegance. And that's before you factor in pitch-shifting and poor sample blending - whoever thought the Bjork sample on 'Utopia' was a good idea should be taken outside - and you wind up with a messier project just from a production standpoint. But it gets worse, because while Kurstin might have been able to accentuate those strong core melodies within the reverb on I Never Learn, that's been swapped out with overweight percussion and trap snares in a play for mainstream attention that ignores how it renders so much of this album a lot less memorable! The only hooks that really stuck with me were the title track and 'bad woman', and that had more to do with the vocal melody line than anything in the instrumental, which is still often just as washed out and often becoming most distinctive for half-formed ideas that don't work, like the extremely sloppy interplay on 'hard rain', or the ugly oily warbles all over the hook of 'jaguars in the air', or the sloppy percussion mixing on 'deep end' and 'last peace', the latter which actually had some potential if the synths could stay on-key!

So yeah, none of this is a good sign if we're weighing this record against any modern indie pop or R&B in performance or production - basically reminiscent of a Tove Lo record with less momentum and worse mixing - so can Lykke Li's lyrics save this album? Well, yes and no - on the one hand I've always liked her framing and the utterly toxic hookups and relationships strewn around this record sound about as unpleasant as they probably are in real life, especially when it's clear there might be some element of genuine feeling highlighted in 'hard rain' and 'better alone' or even the title track. And while I'm not sure songs like 'last piece' and 'utopia' really fit with this album - surrounding Lykke Li's new struggles with having a child and balancing with her art - at least 'utopia' ends on a somewhat optimistic note. But there are two big problems with the writing, and the first is that it can be really hard to invest any emotions in the melodrama here as neither character is all that sympathetic or betrays much in the way of depth. 'two nights' is a prime example - it's a depressed song that leaves Lykke Li yearning for her partner to come home as she suspects he's cheating, but then Amine of all people shows up for a guest verse to flat out admit it and then call Lykke Li out for not investing in the relationship, and while it does provide balance to the situation, the fact that similar situations keep happening through the rest of the album on songs like the title track and 'sex money feelings die' and 'bad woman' and 'better alone' that it makes it hard for me to care, especially with kids in the background - there's a lot less of a thematic arc in comparison to previous records. And the second problem I've already alluded to: in the absence of swell or bombast to elevate lyrics that can feel underwritten, there's very little beyond good framing that makes the writing all that memorable, especially when she starts actively recycling metaphors, either the cigarettes strewn across this album or the rain from her last. I mean, say what you will about Lana Del Rey, who could probably learn something about emotional nuance from Lykke Li, but at least Lana Del Rey can paint something of a picture in her lyrics, there's more flair and style...

But as a whole... look, I'm amazed I found this much to say about so sad so sexy, but the more listens I gave it the more it felt like a complete misstep towards a mainstream style that feels jarring and unnatural for someone like Lykke Li, she doesn't need to be singing songs like 'sex money feelings die' that feel like a bad Instagram caption. I would be charitable and call this transitional, but to what I have no idea, and I certainly hope it's not more of this. For me, this is a very light 5/10 and only recommended to the die hard fans, at best. But this is probably her weakest project to date and I can't see you remembering enough of this project to like or dislike long term - you've been warned.

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