ALBUM: I Never Learn
ARTIST: Lykke Li
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.”