Inquiring minds want to know – has Lykke Li ever smiled? Her music isn’t what one would call happy, though her first album “Youth Novels” had a fair number of intense club bangers on it. Through it all and the music videos she’s put out, never once a smile. I’ve seen her perform live twice. No smiles there either. According to a number of studies, Sweden is one of the 10 happiest countries on Earth. It’s where Li calls home, even if she doesn’t spend as much time there these days. For her sophmore record, she spent a fair amount of time writing and recording in the U.S., jumping between New York and Los Angeles, among other places. Those “other places” were primarily deserts, where she isolated herself from humanity and the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It was in the desert, starring in a short film for a director friend, that she finally found the inspiration she was looking for to create that new album. And though “Wounded Rhymes” may have been born out of isolation and depression, it’s ultimately soulful and escapist fare, a window into her dark world that’s hopefully more intriguing and inspirational than anything else. At the very least you can dance to a lot of it.
The three minute club banger opening of “Youth Knows No Pain” almost comes off like the rallying cry the title suggests. When we’re young, we’re invincible, and if you knock us down, we just get right back up again. The older we get, the more baggage we carry around, and the harder it gets to recover from those everyday stressors inflicted upon is. The positives and negatives of relationships are some of Lykke Li’s favorite topics, and “I Follow Rivers” is the first of many on the album about exactly that. At its core, the track is about the similarities between rivers and her man – how the wild and untamed natural majesty of rivers is so attractive. The music video for the song is pretty much exactly as just described, with a bearded, outdoorsman foreign-type walking alone through an empty landscape while Li follows closely behind. It also makes for a good pop song, with a strong hook and interesting percussive elements bouncing around. Similarly, “Love Out of Lust” is a more ballad-type track of the highest order, vigorously passionate and filled as much with sweeping drama as it is positivity. It’s a healthy reminder that love can be fleeting and temporary, so be sure to express it fully when it comes around, because you never know when it will again.
Things take a turn for the sad on “Unrequited Love”, but while the lyrics are as the title suggests, the way the song is put together really shines through above all else. With just a lone finger-picked guitar and percussion that amounts to no more than slapping on a knee, the track is more a showcase for Lykke Li’s voice and words. There are harmonies built upon harmonies and bits of “shoo wop shoo wop” going around as well, whipping out the classic 50s and 60s girl group style. Because of this, the track actually has a timeless feel to it in the kindest sort of way. Then like the flipping of a switch, the beats get huge again courtesy of some massive bass drum, the guitars ripple with a touch of surf rock, and Li turns from wounded to the attacker via “Get Some”. Many have and will continue to misinterpret the lines, “I’m your prostitute/you gon’ get some” as sexually demeaning or crass. The point is more the aggression and empowerment than it is giving men the idea she wants to be used and abused. It just so happens the song also has one of the best and strongest hooks Li has ever written. The heavier guitars and garage rock atmosphere of “RIch Kids Blues” are about the only good things about the song itself, which sets itself up as a near class warfare song about the poor choices in priorities that wealthy children tend to have. It’s about the sadness and emptiness that comes from having all the material possessions you could ever want, but not a lot else. Actually, it kind of makes sense then that this track has some good instrumentals going for it and not much else, which is sad and empty. Speaking of sad, “Sadness Is A Blessing” blows out a standard Lykke Li ballad into something huge, complete with piano, organ and bells. Yet again it does as the title suggests, in that it takes darker lyrics and sends them skyward as if to show what positivity can come from them.
Things go very quiet again when “I Know Places” shows up with just an acoustic guitar and Lykke Li’s vocal. It’s her moment to go folk, and it gives creedence to the thought that she excels at whatever musical style she tries – more than just your heavy-beat pop jams. The final two minutes of the song descend into a dreamy electronic haze punctuated with spots of guitar that’s eerily reminiscent of Chris Isaak’s classic “Wicked Game”. When the song itself is about escaping to someplace to be alone, that extra instrumental bit tacked on at the end feels like that goal has been accomplished in a very serene and beautiful sort of way. The solitary vacation is over as quickly as it started thanks to “Jerome”, a great mid-tempo track that offers a wide variety of percussion from rumbling bass drums to drum machines to wooden blocks to handclaps, tambourines and shakers. The touches of keyboards are nice too, but it ultimately comes down to a skilled vocal performance to carry the track beyond the vast wasteland of beats. The bass gets really low on closing track “Silent My Song”, echoing out over a massive space like a speaker hanging down from the clouds. Lyrically the song is low too, descending into sadness as Li sings about a man that puts her down at every turn. It’s like The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” from the perspective of the woman underneath it. What’s ironic about the track is how beautiful and vocally strident it is. Li’s voice is raised far above everything else in the mix. So while she sings about her voice going silent, the reality is anything but. It marks just one final complexity across a record packed full of them.
So after two records we definitely know that Lykke Li is not exactly a happy person, but “Wounded Rhymes” does leave us with are more questions. Like most people, she has had her share of heartache and heartbreak, but also deep passion and love. She covers every single one of those bases on this album, and the tracks are arranged in such a haphazard way that you’re never quite sure which emotion on this rollercoaster you’ll be turned onto next. And while that is a problem, it’s equally an asset. Instrumentally speaking, the mixture of hot dance numbers and ballads helps to justify each one’s position on the final product. See, you never want too much of one or the other packed together, so after you get all worked up thanks to a great beat, in comes the softer, slower stuff to mellow you out. No worries though, because before things start to drag, another uptempo track comes in to save the day. It’s smart in that each song feels earned and there’s never too much of a good or bad thing. The next question left hanging is whether or not Lykke Li is a hero or a victim. As the styles bounce back and forth, so do her lyrics, one minute wrestled into control by a man and the next taking control of him. She primarily played the role of the shy girl that just wanted a man on her debut “Youth Novels”, but she’s grown greatly on “Wounded Rhymes” – not only lyrically but vocally too. She’s got some powerhouse pipes that really get shown off for the first time on this record, and they help make most every song better than it would have been otherwise. It’s also a huge reason why this new album is an improvement over her first one. There may not be any songs as overtly amazing as a “Breaking It Up” or “Dance Dance Dance”, but what’s sacrificed in big pop numbers is more than made up for in an overall solidity that only leaves you asking for more.
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