Lykke Li Creates Dark, Enchanting Pop

Lykke Li -- 'Wounded Rhymes' -- Atlantic -- 4 STARS

COURTESY Atlantic

In a recent interview with Fader Magazine, Lykke Li described the early work on her latest album as “really painful,” even as “killing [her];” but nowadays, she says she’s “just been having fun instead.” “Wounded Rhymes” was clearly conceived out of that relationship between pain and enjoyment, and it succeeds as a result. The album alternately floats and thunders along with a consistently dark vibe, alternately mournful and bitterly sexual. Lykke Li comes into her own on this album, developing strikingly rich lyrics supported by a new, cohesive sound. Within this darkness and depth, an effortless catchiness and pleasantly predictable structure inject “Wounded Rhymes” with clear pop appeal. The result is an unexpected gem—an enjoyable, accessible triumph of intriguingly creative musicianship.

“Wounded Rhymes” charges its short, catchy tracks with lyrical subject matter both dark and diverse, painting portraits of honest sadness and primal anger in rich, dynamic language. Within the album’s dark focus, Lykke Li covers a lot of ground, from the troubles of relationships on “Sadness Is a Blessing” to the abstractly portrayed, enigmatic psyches of menacing narrators on “Get Some,” “Jerome,” and “Youth Knows No Pain.” Lines such as “For life is like a flame / And the ashes for wasting / So honey don’t be afraid / To dance while we’re waiting” captivate primarily through Lykke Li’s consistently fresh poetic sensibility—her command of vividly mysterious imagery and figurative description.

At times, she also has a knack for striking, immediately relatable sentiments—lines such as “We will live longer than I will / We will be better than I was,” and simply “Youth knows no pain”—but on her more universally-minded tracks, her lyrics’ ceaseless blending of the real and the imagined rob them of a little human connection. A sense of merely observing Lykke Li’s emotions predominates on the album, but she denies access to her listener, walling them off with her own elusive poetic representations. However, “Wounded Rhymes” does evince a strikingly creative and expansive lyrical sense through its varied subject matter and ambitious description.

These dark, beguiling vignettes thrive in—and indeed, gain some of their conviction from—the moody, stripped-down, reverberating sound in which Lykke Li has wrapped the album. She’s chosen a relatively unvaried, limited instrumental palette for the entire album: basic, thundering drumbeats power each track, accented with low, reverberating piano chords, smooth synthesizer tones, and clattering percussion accents reminiscent of Beck’s more up-tempo material. These elements echo beautifully in the songs’ silent spaces, and Lykke Li’s soaring, rough-around-the-edges vocals arch passionately over it all. This dark atmosphere perfectly consummates the lyrics’ vision, but in doing so, also helps transmit the emotional context behind particularly obtuse lyrics.

Around these dark themes and bare instrumentals, though, “Wounded Rhymes” still firmly maintains its pop structure and appeal. Those same elements that conjure its menacing atmosphere—the pulse of the tribal drumbeats, the piano chord progressions, and the synth-organ hooks that fire swagger into “Youth Knows No Pain” and “Rich Kid Blues”—also breed a natural catchiness matched by Lykke Li’s simple vocal melodies and choruses. Most tracks embrace the pop traditions of brevity and structure, as well, with Lykke Li tailoring her imaginative lyricism to verse-chorus formats of three to five minutes.

The album is marred at a couple points by tracks that desert Lykke Li’s obvious strong suits. “Unrequited Love” is a minor setback—while the lyrics do offer some intrigue, there aren’t very many of them, and they’re repeated excessively. The song wallows along without a beat, catchy hook, or guiding format, but it concludes reasonably at three minutes. The album’s weakest track is “I Know Places,” where the decent lyrical content cannot support five minutes of languid acoustic guitar chords, after which the song slides into a contemplative synthesizer outro. The track shatters Lykke Li’s carefully constructed dark atmosphere, meanders along without pop appeal, and almost kills the entire album’s momentum.

However, these two tracks aren’t enough to wreck the success of the album as a deftly constructed work. On “Wounded Rhymes” Lykke Li explores the relationships between pain and pop, reality and imagination. She has confidently shaped a resonant sound based on an insidious catchiness and accessibility that leaves one hoping she’ll nearly drive herself crazy for the next album—and then just start having fun.

—Staff writer Austin Siegemund-Broka can be reached at asiegmund-broka@college.harvard.edu.

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