Lykke Li - I Never Learn

Lyyke Li alternately entombs and resuscitates a bygone relationship, ending her trilogy of albums with a cavernous breakup song cycle.

Additional Info

8.2

ALBUM: I Never Learn

ARTIST: Lykke Li

2014

Alternative

This past July, Lykke Li collaborated with surrealist film director/musician/photographer David Lynch on a song, “I’m Waiting Here.” The barren desert imagery in the music video, the quintessential minimalism and spirituality of the Southwest, forecast Lykke Li’s aesthetic for I Never Learn. It is spare, but it is also a landscape of Lynchian surrealism; the moon, the stars, rainfall—these natural elements imbue this breakup album with an intensely bereft temperament.

When I first heard Li refer to I Never Learn as the conclusion to a trilogy of albums, I was skeptical. It seemed like more of a marketing scheme, a retroactive way to rebrand her catalogue, superimposing an on-second-thought arc to it. Now, though, with I Never Learn internalized, I need to only look at the three album covers to see a premeditated triptych, a Swedish woman gestalt. The first has playful geometric outlining over her profile shot; on the second, she is concealed by silk, near a jetty in the dunes; and on this third, Lykke Li is finally in focus, forging eye contact as she clutches her heart, her lace veil and leather jacket enhancing the utter exposedness. Over the past six years, since the release of Youth Novels (2008), Lykke Li has ran the gamut from coquettish indie Swede (2008) to fledgling pop star (2011) to anthemic singer-songwriter of twenty-eight years (2014). The content of her albums are reflective of the centrifugal relationships of which she has been a part and of which she has been severed. Through a lens of lazy physiognomy, Li appears to have generated a sophisticated niche for vicenarian women. On her latest, Li becomes both piñata and stick; she bats, then spills with saccharine viscera.

I Never Learn, though, is unique in its focus: it is a thorough requiem for a relationship that (some tracks imply) fizzled or (others suggest) detonated. The lyrics skew abstract, never succumbing to concrete indie nostalgia (as with Noah and the Whale’s “Five Years Time”). Li does not indulge specificity; the memories are already packed in cardboard receptacles, not for petty sale to voyeuristic listeners. There are, however, occasional attempts at desperate resuscitation, as if Li has been licensed in relationship CPR. The come-back-to-me imperatives and inflexible vision of how memories will be encoded are Li’s chosen way forward. Despite Li’s fervor, though, little changes over the course of tracks. It’s to be expected considering the title of the album, but our clarity is an outsider’s privilege. To listen to this album purely, one must traverse with Li, be willing to not just accompany the never-learning “I,” but to unlearn as well. Finally, though, on the last track (spoiler), Li throws up her hands and abandons the ex- figure she has relentlessly petitioned through eight tracks, allows him to become a ghost, someone to be encountered in the future “somewhere, sometime.”

The repetition and cliché may keep the listener at arm’s length, but it is forgivable since Li is grasping at straws, writing from her Los Angeles bed as if it is the epicenter of her labyrinthine limbic system, from which she is tracing switchbacks of thread to a healthy escape. As always, Li is economic with consecutive songs following identical and predictable composition as she follows some cracked formulae for Swedish breakup melody. The equally economical Perfect Pussy (Say Yes to Love, 2014), also of a single aesthetic, occurred to me as a companion album to I Never Learn, the irony being that the harsh post-punk clamor of Perfect Pussy carries the more sanguine horoscope.

It’s of little coincidence that Li picks up her first co-producer credit (along with Björn Yttling and Greg Kurstin) on I Never Learn. That she was making decisions beyond the songwriting is evident from the timbre of slide guitar on “Silverline” to the choral arrangement on “Heart of Steel.” I Never Learn perpetuates the celestial romance song cycle introduced by Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, that torch variously carried by Fleetwood Mac, ABBA, and Spiritualized.

“Even though it hurts, even though it scars… love me like I’m not made of stone.”

1. I Never Learn
The title track opens with acoustic guitar, assertive, invoking Fleetwood Mac. The first words of the first four lines orient us to Lykke Li’s heartache, ‘where’ ‘where’ ‘in’ and ‘by’ serving to displace us along with Lykke Li from her phantom lover. The lyrics in this song are among the most muffled of the album as Li rehearses soothing mantras, one of which establishes the moon as an early motif. The violin at 1:40 signals saga. In “I Never Learn,” we hear the first of the ubiquitous choir that echoes Li’s sentiments throughout the album, reinforcing her reclamation of self, the occasional self-deprecation, accompanying her on her march through the doldrums of heartache. 8.2
2. No Rest for the Wicked
A toy piano opens with playful single suspended notes. Li’s bluesy voice sophisticates the track immediately, which dovetails with the power chorus whose lyrics are prospective and incontrovertible. Borrowing from the Book of Isaiah, the chorus is masochist, a self-flagellating damnation to insomnia and torment. The toy piano returns with deep bass drum booms to contain the playful tinkling. The verses are confessional: she’s let her true love down. “I had his heart,” she sings, “but I broke it every time.” It’s reminiscent of Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s “Skeleton Key” (“I did a horrible thing to that girl / I bred my misery and drowned it in her”), but its anthemic prowess rises above indie stature.9.4
3. Just Like a Dream
By “Just Like a Dream,” it becomes apparent that these songs are all of a piece. It’s not a concept album, but a prevailing mood with the pheromonal fetor of a breakup album. The aesthetic becomes cemented on track three, Li’s constant octave seemingly incapable of breaking into Youth Novels’ coquettish falsetto. The chorus is dream pop cliché recycled from the 1980s, but the direct address to her darling, petitioning him to come back to her is hard to “overhear.” Despite the veil of cliché, there is something universally voyeuristic about these imperatives that succeed breakup. Toward the last third, ambient high-fret slide guitar sounding flutelike turns the song astral as the chorus overindulges. 7.6
4. Silverline
The song has a similar construction to “Just Like A Dream” (to “Never Gonna Love Again” too). Again, it dabbles in cliché, but “Silverline” has more utility because it challenges the palette we’ve hitherto gotten from I Never Learn. Like the Shins’ “Australia,” there are aquatic overtones, heavily reverbed acoustic slide guitar and percussion. In this song, Li’s ego interjects to narrate the breakup. Turns out, Li sees herself as a heroic partner. Speaking to her ex-, she reminds him that she saves him every time. This vindication is long overdue after the self-critical lens of the first three tracks. The moon returns as a motif, though it’s more of a pond or puddle reflection of the moon as the track closes with ripples.7.9
5. Gunshot
Since Lykke Li is a solo performer, the comparison to 2013’s breakout power pop groups—Haim and CHVRCHES, that is—may not seem self-evident. However, the ubiquity of the soulful, powerful, precise backing choir can, at times, turn Lykke Li into a one-woman band. The bass here begins bland, but becomes more inspired than anywhere else on the album. The drum is lively too, reminiscent of percussion-heavy Wounded Rhymes (see “Get Some” or “Love Out of Lust” or “I Follow Rivers” or “Rich Kids Blues” or “Jerome”). In fact, the comparison may be more neatly drawn to “Wings” by HAERTS, a song where a few reverbed toms can signal the transition between alt country and power pop. There is a snare triplet in “Gunshot,” mimetic of the titular gunshot.8.5
6. Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone
In this stunning track, Lykke Li’s voice sounds finally as broken as she’s been promising she feels. The anomalous strength with which she delivers the tracks leading up to this becomes a retrograde façade, and we are left with her barely off-key megaphonic voice singing over a minimal chord progression whose fingertips scratch on the vinyl along the fret board. In the first line, “heart” seems replaceable with “hurt” when she sings “There’s a heart I cannot hide.” She sounds most wounded here as she begs for love “even though it hurts, even though it scars.” Again depicting herself as a masochist for this relationship, her depthless despair knows no exceptions as to how it will receive love. Li will take the love she can get: “Love me deep / until you can’t.” It’s the most genuinely heartbreaking song I’ve heard since Angel Olsen’s “Unfucktheworld,” both of these bereft of affect, numb and linear, as if slowing and staring at a dreaded, but inevitable finish line. If somebody had previewed this to me this time last year, told me this would be on the next Lykke Li album, I wouldn’t have believed it, didn’t think she was subject to this kind of fragility. Beware: at 2:55, Li forges a new rhythm just to catch her breath. This snag is a revelation. Of course, though, with the narrative surrounding I Never Learn I was prepared. I only wish—considering her partnership with director David Lynch this year—the music video for this song could have been directed by Lynch and sung at One-Eyed Jacks on the set of Twin Peaks.9.7
7. Never Gonna Love Again
It begins mistily, in time for Li to let us know it’s drizzling. The scant acoustics of the last song are supplanted by studio balladry. With the tambourine and ethereal guitar effects, Celine Dion seems somehow like a plausible comparison. The rain resubmerges Li, and this third instance of cliché recalls the previous two songs composed in the same vein. Maybe the cliché is intentional after all, a depiction of the universal self-absorption of going through a breakup. Too, it may just be that cliché is an inherited language when coping with loss. “Every time it rains, think of me,” she requests of her ex-. The naïvete that is implicit in Youth Novels is still here; only, it’s a pessimist’s naïvete: “I’m never gonna love again,” Li sings. She seems unaware that thinking it impossible to love again is as naïve as thinking one can find love in the first place.7.3
8. Heart of Steel
“Heart of Steel” is as bland as I Never Learn gets, the choir trying but failing to buoy the discouragement Li is experiencing. The melody is, as ever, simple, but the choir overcomplicates it. The echo seems overworked, meaning perhaps that Li is reaching resolution, wearing out her welcome in her own grief.6.8
9. Sleeping Alone
Beginning with somber piano, Li’s voice opens at her bluesiest (a timbre missing from her repertoire since Wounded Rhyme’s excellent “Unrequited Love”). Following the breakup, Li dreads sleeping alone. After eight heart-bursting songs, this final cut presents a tone of somnolence. Li is among the sleepy unsleeping, afflicted with wide-eyed insomnia. The much-fabled bed from pre-release interviews is implied here. As a way to fill it, she conjures the future wraith of her ex-, promising him that they’ll meet again. A ghostly and heavily arrested guitar (recalling the phantom lover of the first track) slides on cue. “Somewhere, sometime,” she sings, and the indefinite vision of her future reigns, petrifies her in her bed. Perhaps the most affecting lyric of the whole album, the one that deliberately rounds out this trilogy of albums, is when Li sings: “can’t get used to dancing with myself.” At the front of Youth Novels, Li’s first single, “Dance Dance Dance,” flirtatiously announces: “I was a dancer all along.” It is easy to remember her fondly, dancing alone on Youtube, introducing herself to us—graceful, giddy, naïve, unbroken. Whereas Li once seemed to keep her actions slight as she danced and her jaw tight as she sang (“’cause I’m shy shy shy”), she challenged her vulnerability, crescendoing over the course of albums until she was capable of broad gesture and ample bellowing on I Never Learn, having found and taken some panacea for her bashfulness. Still, though, all this achieves for her a new level of stasis as the trilogy closes with her on a bed, petrified as a stone.8.0
Written by Lawrence Lenhart
Lawrence Lenhart received his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, where he was the editor-in-chief of Sonora Review. He is the recipient of two Foundation Awards, two Taube Awards, and the Laverne Harrell Clark Award in Fiction.



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