Lykke Li’s Divine Melancholia

It all started with Tina Cohen-Chang. Yes, Glee’s regularly overlooked character, played with zeal by the superb Jenna Ushkowitz, was my introduction to the world of Lykke Li’s music. I’m sure there are many others who would say the same thing. Towards the end of the show’s second season came an episode titled ‘Night of Neglect’, in which the stars of the New Directions paid tribute to criminally overlooked artists and songs. Tina’s pick? ‘I Follow Rivers’, from Li’s second album, ‘Wounded Rhymes’. It was gothic, dramatic, sexy… everything that fifteen-year-old me that was just. so. cool. I downloaded the Glee version of the track as soon as the episode was finished, and headed out to buy Li’s album from HMV the following weekend.

When I finally got my hands on it after days, yes, whole days of waiting. I found an album that would remain on heavy rotation in our household for years to come. ‘Wounded Rhymes’ takes the pounding drums and heavy reverb of ‘I Follow Rivers’ and explores it fully over the course of its ten songs. ‘Youth Knows No Pain’ is a thunderous opening track that doesn’t so much as welcome you to the album as it drags you by the hair, kicking and screaming into Li’s world. It is perhaps only superseded in energy and bombast by single ‘Get Some’, a tribal ode to sex and desire.

It might not be a surprise with a title as plaintive as ‘Wounded Rhymes’, but this isn’t an album that’s afraid to get vulnerable. Indeed, Li’s voice is pained almost to breaking point on ‘Unrequited Love’, while there is a gentle warmth at the heart of ‘I Know Places’ that contrasts with the album’s otherwise icy soundscapes.

Li fully embraces the gothic atmosphere she’s carefully curated across the album on closing track ‘Silent My Song’, an industrial drone of a song that wouldn’t feel out of place on the soundtrack to Robert Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse’. The album’s centrepiece, however, has to be ‘Sadness Is A Blessing’. Borrowing elements of 60s doo-wop and fusing them with Li’s own unique brand of northern melancholia, this is a grandiose ode to the feelings of comfort and ease that can come with wallowing in your own misery. Sure, it hurts, says Li, but I wouldn’t know what to do without it. When you’ve been down for so long, it can be difficult to learn how to let the light back in.

In the wake of ‘Wounded Rhymes’, I had to go back and explore Li’s previous work: debut album ‘Youth Novels’. I’d heard ‘Little Bit’, undoubtedly the most famous track from the release, not long after getting my hands on ‘Wounded Rhymes’, and was intrigued by how different it sounded when compared to the pounding drums and larger-than-life soundscapes of Li’s later work. When I finally sat down with it, I have to admit that I was, for lack of a better word, unimpressed. Where ‘Wounded Rhymes’ felt like a complete body of work, ‘Youth Novels’ felt very much like a draft, its songs thin sketches of what could be. While there are highlights here, namely the opening two tracks, ‘Melodies & Desires’ and ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’, much of the album feels too light to really sink your teeth into, coming across as Li experimenting with sound more than producing a fully realised ‘album’ as such.

Nevertheless, my love for Li’s music endured, and I was able to make it to see her live at the Roundhouse in London during her tour in support of ‘Wounded Rhymes’. She was, quite simply, one of the most captivating performers I’d ever seen, her stage empty save for some billowing fabric behind her. She was magnetic, commanding the whole room embrace the music and feel some kind of cathartic release with her.

It was a long wait until Li’s next album appeared in 2014. I’d played ‘Wounded Rhymes’ half to death by then, and was starving for new material. When it arrived, it was nothing short of a marvel.

‘I Never Learn’ is a towering achievement, and will likely go down as the album fans point to in order to prove Li’s artistic prowess for years to come. Over its nine tracks, ‘I Never Learn’ takes all of the heartache and pain from ‘Wounded Rhymes’ and digs in deeper, exposing the raw nerve at the heart of Li’s sadness and prodding and poking it until she can almost take no more. From start to finish, ‘I Never Learn’ is a devastatingly beautiful body of work, one that makes any writer or musician take stock and wish they come up with something half as elegant and honest.

From the very opening acoustic guitar chords, ‘I Never Learn’ revels in its blue romanticism, conjuring forth images of Shakespeare’s ‘star-crossed lovers’, listless dreamers and poisoned loves that grew like ivy. If ‘Wounded Rhymes’ was Li pondering the emotions that came with a broken heart, ‘I Never Learn’ is a physical ache almost too profound to be put into words. Almost. In fact, there are times over the course of the album in which Li, overcome with emotion, seems to almost give up on language, instead sinking back into the instrumentation and letting her cosmic guitars take over as she disappears into the ether from which she came.

That’s not to say that Li has her head in the stars throughout the album. Where the title track is dreamy and spacious, ‘Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone’ is Li at her most intimate. Earthed and frayed, her cracked voice belies the pain inside. Here, it feels like Li has given up all pretence of grandeur, and is instead sat with her guitar in front of the open fire as she pours her heart out. It is perhaps the album’s most vulnerable moment, an ode to the pain of feeling unable to give your all to a relationship while wanting, no, needing, your partner to give their everything.

‘Gunshot’ is undoubtedly the closest the album gets to ‘pure pop’, a heady mix of rapturous drums and Li’s silken voice, while ‘Heart of Steel’ feels like the perfect counterpart to ‘Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone’, Li pleading with herself not to become her own worst enemy in love. ‘Never Gonna Love Again’ and ‘No Rest For The Wicked’ fully embrace the wall of sound, coming in like tidal waves in otherwise relative calm waters.

‘I Never Learn’ closes out its short 33-minute runtime with ‘Sleeping Alone’, a song that melds the pain of heartbreak with the pervasive hope that a fateful re-encounter somewhere down the line might see its protagonists spin an entirely different tale. ‘We’ll meet again’, Li echoes as she disappears into the silence, where she would remain for the next four years.

By 2018, my life was very different. I had left home, and was a fourth-year student at university, having just completed my year abroad the previous August. One night, while I was on my phone in my student accommodation, Li resurfaced, teasing the release of double single ‘Hard Rain’ and ‘Deep End’. To say I was excited would be a glorious error in judgement. I was downright foaming at the mouth. Four years I had waited! When the tracks released, I played them religiously, although their new trap-inspired sound didn’t quite resonate with me in the same way as the orchestral arrangements of ‘Wounded Rhymes’ and ‘I Never Learn’.

I was staying at my friend’s house in Rome when the album dropped. ‘So Sad So Sexy’ was one of my most played albums of 2018, but, to be quite honest, that would’ve been the case for pretty much anything Li released at that point. Indeed, looking back on this era, nothing hits quite as hard as anything on the previous two albums. It felt at times that Li had leaned too far into the ‘Tumblr-core’ aesthetic, and had produced an album that almost felt like a pastiche of itself at times.

Li’s music is never of terrible quality, and rarely even ventures towards poor, but ‘So Sad So Sexy’ fails to rise far above mediocrity, and can’t help but feel like a poorly judged misstep for her. There are some highlights: ‘Bad Woman’ feels like it comes the closest to capturing the magic of Li’s previous works, and ‘Jaguars In The Air’, while utterly nonsensical, does at least manage to create a vibe that engulfs, its pillowy beats folding around you.

Honestly, ‘So Sad So Sexy’ pushed me away from Li. And it seems to have had that effect on a lot of others too. When Li once again disappeared for a four-year break, not many people turned up when she returned. It’s a shame because her fifth album, ‘EYEYE’, manages to resuscitate Li’s spark. That’s not to say it immediately clicked with me – in the throng of strong 2022 releases, ‘EYEYE’ admittedly got a little lost in the mix. Revisiting it this year, however, when it’s had more room to breathe, has been revelatory.

This is a vastly pared back album, most reminiscent of ‘Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone’ in its textures. ‘EYEYE’ feels warm, earthed, far from the icy plains of ‘I Never Learn’ or the calculated coldness of ‘So Sad So Sexy’. Li’s voice hangs close to the microphone, static crackling as she leans in to whisper her pain away. But where ‘Wounded Rhymes’ and ‘I Never Learn’ were devastating in their grief, ‘EYEYE’ feels like it wants to embrace you, to empathise with you. This isn’t one person’s melancholy anymore, but a shared sadness that unites, pulls you in close and says, “You are not alone in this”.

‘Happy Hurts’ is the perfect example of this: two verses and choruses that seem so tinged with sadness and despair that transition into an airy, hopeful bridge and fade out, Li’s voice floating across the reverb. ‘Carousel’ strikes a similar balance, walking the thin line between darkness and light.

‘EYEYE’ isn’t as immediately arresting as some of Li’s previous work, but give it time to sit and it will, without doubt, reveal its treasures to you. It’s just a shame that so few people have listened to it. It does, as an album, very much feel like the culmination of Li’s work so far, and while I would hope it isn’t, could be seen as a perfect career closer. Hopefully not, but you never know. Maybe she’ll just disappear for another four years, and we’ll all meet back under her watchful eye in 2026 to cry and banish our demons together with another half-hour eight-track release.

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