Lykke Li‘s had a bad year. Or two. Maybe more.
“I’ve been through some shit,” she told The Guardian, succinctly.
Specifically, she’s been dealing with the exhausting emotional contradiction of a birth, a death and a relationship on the rocks at almost the same time.
“I don’t know if many people know what actually happened in my life the last two years,” she explained to Zane Lowe in a Beats 1 interview.
“I had a baby, and then shortly after, my mom got diagnosed with cancer and then she passed away in the summer…and then you know, I had maybe some problems in my relationship, et cetera. It’s such a really difficult thing to deal with – my mom passing – that I really was like…‘okay, I’m just going to make the album.’”
Granted, it’s not as if the Swedish singer-songwriter wasn’t already feeling emotional well before the loss of her mother: her 2014 record, I Never Learn, was the epitome of bleak, and her back catalog is certainly steeped in sadness (and sexiness!) as well. Basically, “yeah I’m EMO who fucking cares.” (Skrillex also had a small hand in production on this album, actually.)
Rather than returning to the reverb-heavy, dreary dream-pop confines she’s spent plenty of time in on her past records, Lykke’s grabbed the keys, hopped into her ride and set off in search of a more polished and pronounced pop sound, punctuated by trap hi-hats and tripping beats.
Yes: so sad so sexy is Lykke’s #SomethingMoreUrban, hip-pop opus – but dope beats don’t stop those tears from falling.
As opposed to her past three studio albums, co-crafted almost exclusively with Björn Yttling, Lykke hit the studio with co-executive producer Malay (Zayn, Frank Ocean) and then invited a whole crew to join the party: Rostam, Ilsey, T-Minus, Kid Harpoon, DJ Dahi, Illangelo and Rick Nowels, among others. Because misery loves company, right?
“I’m so fucking deep…I’m in it…”
And so, we’re in it: from anxiously awaiting a lover on the loose for days on end (“two nights” with Aminé) to guilt-ridden pleas for a second chance (“bad woman”) to drowning in the depths of despair (“deep end”), so sad, so sexy is the soundtrack to sleepless nights, unfulfilling sex, sob sessions, shameless pleas for second chances and shitty communication skills.
At times, as with the album’s solemn opener “hard rain,” the vocoded anguish and punchy production is reminiscent of Kanye West‘s icy 808s & Heartbreaks, as well as Rihanna‘s Anti, which Lykke’s cited as an influence in making this record. Together, these albums share Jeff Bhasker on the production side to varying degrees, who also happens to be involved on so sad, so sexy – and the father of Lykke’s son, Dion. (Plot twist!)
Throw your hands up if you can’t find a reason to feel anything anymore: this is a gloomy album – there’s no way around that. “sex money feelings die” is the epitome of Lykke at her numbest and most nihilist, wasted, hooking up, spinning out of control across a hip-hop beat. These are sad, self-destructive anthems that seriously knock.
The album’s masterful centerpiece and title track “so sad, so sexy” was recorded with Born To Die legend Emile Haynie, and has an ’80s retro flair, floating across atmospheric synths that could have been yanked from underneath Cyndi Lauper‘s “Time After Time,” and perhaps the Drive soundtrack: “I was only lying when I looked in your eyes / Now I’m lying with you one last time, and it’s…so sad, so sexy.”
Even at her most heavenly sounding, Lykke’s still languishing: “I’m better alone than lonely,” she sadly repeats to herself on “better alone” – an instantly hypnotic album highlight – lying wide awake on her side after yet another unfulfilling romp. “What are we gonna do when making love don’t make it right?” Those angelic vocals in the final moments, especially – “lonely, I’m better alone…” – make for a chilling final impression.
For fans resistant to a hipper, hoppier version of their favorite indie-pop singer, she’s still very much herself, even if the music is more “accessible”: the droning guitars of the lurching “last piece,” especially, feel spiritually connected to the last Lykke records. (“You-ou-ou, lost myself to you…” – one of the album’s many great earworms.)
There’s barely room for a ray of light to poke through this pitch-black material, apart from the smooth summer drive-friendly sound of “jaguars in the air,” an us-against-the-world daydream similar to something a younger Lana Del Rey, sister in suh-suh-summertime sadness, might croon to the bad baby sitting on her heavenly side.
She does, at least, attempt some form of optimism. On “utopia,” the final statement on the record, Lykke tries to convince her love to stay across a gentle melody: “We could be the most transcendent,” she pleads. Is the glass beginning to look half full for Lykke, after all? Not quite: the song morphs into something more sinister as she becomes increasingly desperate in its final moments: “Stay with me, stay in love, never leave, you won’t bow out, you won’t run out, when all my shit’s out…”
Will they make it work this one last time? A musical cliffhanger.
Clocking in at a concise ten tracks – a perfect, leave-’em-wanting-more run time – so sad so sexy is a spectacularly crafted, start-to-finish ride through the valley of midnight misery.
It’s one of the few pop projects released in 2018 thus far that makes good on the idea that albums can still matter as a cohesive statement, as opposed to just being a bundle of drastically different-sounding tracks commissioned by A&Rs scrambling to find something that will work for streaming. (Somehow, those kinds of albums are darker than this one.)
In this exponentially attention deprived time in history, when the full-length album is being lowered into a grave by #NewMusicFriday-ready mass consumption bops, this collection is evidence that some artists are still capable of telling a tale – even if it’s a sad one.
so sad, so sexy was released on June 8. (iTunes)
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Photo credit: Chloe Le Drezen