Oh, the heartache. The real, motherfucking, why should I even wake up in the morning, heartache. It’s something Lykke Li knows all too well. It wasn’t so long ago that she fled from her native Sweden to Los Angeles, a 28 year old who’d just gone through the most painful break up of her life. As if that wasn’t bad enough, once in L.A. she suffered an existential crisis. She might as well have called her new album — her third — Breakups and Breakdowns. Alas, the title I Never Learn is telling. It would seem to imply a certain degree of self-loathing, for it takes some serious self-criticism to not only admit that you never learn but to name your album that for all the world to see. And once you know that she means it in the context of love, the title says it all, doesn’t it?
If the album title doesn’t tell you anything, simply read some of the song titles: “Never Gonna Love Again,” “Heart of Steel,” “Sleeping Alone,” “Gunshot.” These are clearly not songs by someone who’s feeling optimistic about, well, anything.
The album opens with the haunting title track, “I Never Learn,” and it gives one the impression that Li is ambivalent about not just love but life itself. “I lie here like a starless lover / I’ll die here as your phantom lover / I never learn, I never learn,” she sings with a potent mix of heartache and apathy in her voice. It’s as though one second she gives too much of a fuck and the next she doesn’t give a fuck at all. And the music conveys that perfectly, being one part wishy washy acoustic guitars and one part elaborate orchestration.
The whole of the following track, “No Rest For The Wicked,” is intricate with ornate keys, massive beats and layers of vocals — particularly during the ethereal chorus — resulting in a Phil Spector-like wall of sound. (Everyone is saying it, but that’s because it’s true.) If a member of one of his precious girl groups would have suddenly found herself alone with no friends, bandmates or lovers, the album he would have made with her would’ve sounded something like this. But Spector only deserves so much of the credit here. After all, his sound might have informed Li’s but it’s the critically acclaimed Bjørn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John fame who’s produced her records and actually crafted her sound along with her. To that end, he’s produced eight of the nine tracks here, only “Gunshot” having been produced by Greg Kurstin.
While Li’s first album, 2008’s Youth Novels, found the songstress and Yttling creating an almost whimsical sound with lots of electro-flourishes and playful details, it was her second album, 2011’s Wounded Rhymes, that first found them experimenting with darker tones and those Spector-isms. Songs like “Youth Knows No Pain” and “Get Some” were elaborate and exquisite, rich in layers and layers of evocative sound. They were also entirely catchy. If you look up art pop on Wiki, I suspect that Li’s Wounded Rhymes is what you’ll find. To that end, I Never Learn often takes a more subtle approach. Even the ambitious “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” is comprised mostly of sparse vocals that sound like they were recorded in a deserted church with a solitary guitar player strumming along way up in the back of the balcony with no sound system to project him. But, by making Li’s voice and her potent lyrics the focus, it’s brilliant in its simplicity. And it’s almost the opposite of what Spector would have done, as he’d surely have recorded several vocal tracks and lots of guitar over-dubs. So, again, it’s Yttling who deserves the credit.
The ballad “Never Gonna Love Again” is equally brilliant, but much more fleshed out with boisterous beats and other percussive sounds — paired with layers and layers of backing vocals — dominating the mix along with guitars drenched in reverb. It’s during this melodious tune that Li sounds at least somewhat optimistic, singing, “Drive me to the dead end, til I / Promise not to run / This time, I can’t keep running away cause / I’m never gonna love again.” It’s as though she’s saying the words “I’m never gonna love again” but she feels herself falling for someone in spite of herself, hence her telling the suitor not to let her run.
Finally, the Kurstin-produced “Gunshot” is an interesting tune that would seem to split the difference between Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and the last M.I.A. record, which was probably the idea, as Kurstin was likely brought in to help her produce a single. To that end, it would seem to be the most radio-friendly track on the album, in spite of its depressing subject matter. Yet it hasn’t been issued as a single yet, proving that it’s Li herself who still controls her career regardless of where her head or heart might be at these days. Here’s hoping she finds her way back from the depths that have swallowed her and lives to continue making some of contemporary pop’s greatest records.