Lykke Li, ‘I Never Learn’: A Heavy-Hearted Opus (Album Review)

Lykke Li is in a dark place.

At least, she’s not quite the same bright-eyed Swedish songbird we met six years ago on Youth Novels, a record full of innocently quirky pop ditties like “Little Bit” and “I’m Good, I’m Gone.”

By 2011’s Wounded Rhymes, she’d begun to hone her artistry and tap into something more complex and riotous, delivering the unexpectedly assertive “Get Some” and worldweary anthems like “Sadness Is A Blessing” and “I Follow Rivers.” She gained substantial indie cred at that point, floating somewhere between just-below-the-radar Swede-pop superstardom (see: Robyn) and Pitchfork-approved indie darling status.

But really, she couldn’t care less.

“The older I become the less interested I am in blowing up. I’m not at all interested in the spotlight or becoming big. For me I just create because I have to, and then everything around it — all the other stuff you are expected to do — I find kind of painful,” she explained to T. Cole Rachel in an interview for Stereogum.

With no motivation for her music other than to be an outlet, her work has become increasingly personal with each record — and, as a result, fairly tortured.

I Never Learn, considered the final chapter in a trilogy of albums, captures a singer-songwriter physically and emotionally exhausted following her tour, getting her heart broken while on the road, growing older, lonelier and, ultimately, having no place to call home.

From Stereogum:

I was in a relationship, I suppose, and that ended while I was on my final leg of the tour. I had already felt caught up in touring for a long time. I was thinking, I really don’t know how much more I can take of this. I do it so fully. It was hard getting anything back. I mean, I get something back from the audience, yes, but the lifestyle is so hard. So I had to go through that whole breakup on my tour bus in a little bunk and then I had to be on stage every night. It was really the hardest thing ever. So I didn’t have anywhere to live and the tour was going to end. It ended in New Orleans. After that I was like, “Cool. I have no more touring. I don’t have a relationship. I don’t have a home. Whoa.”

In case you couldn’t tell from the song titles alone — “I Never Learn,” “Never Gonna Love Again,” “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone,” “Sleeping Alone” — I Never Learn is a break-up record to its core — perhaps the best since Adele‘s 21.

Working alongside her longtime collaborators Björn Yttling and Rick Nowels, Lykke also wisely tapped Greg Kurstin for her latest project, rounding out her sound with a more polished pop sheen. Colored by lonesome, twangy guitars, tambourine rattles and marching drums, the cohesive collection brings the heaviest parts of Lana Del Rey‘s discography to mind, as well as Rilo Kiley, Florence + The Machine, The Cardigans and the classic pop sensibility of Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac.

The record is packed with aching torch tracks and power ballads (there’s not a single uptempo moment, in case you expected otherwise), all of which genuinely play like long-loved classics from the first listen: “Gunshot”, an ode to unrequited love, is armed with a sweeping woosh of a chorus that is undeniably epic, as though plucked straight from a lost Fleetwood Mac session. “Never get you back,” she mournfully cries out on repeat.

That the I Never Learn campaign kicked off with “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone” — recorded in what sounds like a single take atop a simple guitar melody — is somewhat perplexing, given that it’s the roughest cut in the collection. But then, presenting the world with her most stripped-down material seems to be exactly the point she’s trying to make: “If anything I want to be seen as a singer-songwriter rather than a pop artist. I really feel like I’ve found my voice,” she told NME back in January.

She’s thoroughly defeated, yet determined to make it right still — which is even more crushing. “Be the night and I will be your shining light,” she begs across the moody pulsations of “Silver Line.” “Just like a dream/Stay baby, stay with me,” she pleads on the instantly anthemic “Just Like A Dream.”

The finality of her relationship threads itself through the entire record, especially toward the end with the heavy, piano-led “Sleep Alone” and “Never Gonna Love Again,” a gorgeously weepy power ballad that sees Lykke drowning her sorrows in giant piano chords and sweeping hooks. “Every time the rain falls…think of me,” she sadly coos.

With so much melancholy, the album sounds like an utterly depressing listen on paper — and, well, it is. After all, what better inspiration to draw from than heartbreak? But the impeccable songcraft and start-to-finish cohesion, as well as Lykke’s voice, which has undeniably strengthened through touring and her continued personal evolution as an artist, all help to keep the record from drowning in its own bleakness.

Lykke Li’s pain is, morbidly, our pleasure, resulting in some of the most impressive songs she’s ever recorded.

I Never Learn isn’t an album meant for getting super turnt up on a Friday night, but damn, if it isn’t the perfect companion for the morning after.

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‘I Never Learn’ will be released on May 5. (iTunes)

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