Sunday, 11 May 2014

Album Review - I Never Learn

I Never Learn
by Lykke Li (out now)

I've gone back and forth in my mind over what I could possibly say about Lykke Li's third studio effort, I Never Learn, that would convey to anyone reading just how much of a knockout it is in every single way. A collection of (likely poorly) assembled words gushing over an album I would want everyone to hear doesn't seem appropriate for a listening experience that, if you love it, is surprisingly personal, at times overwhelmingly powerful and stirring. But this is supposedly an album review, so I guess I'll have a crack at it.

"I'll die here as your phantom lover, I never learn, I never learn." The title track begins with acoustic guitars that make way for Li's haunting vocals and a cinematic string arrangement. As an opener, it achieves everything it has to in setting the tone and standard for what's to come. The full sound of the music should work against the loneliness in the message and the confession that the narrator continues to make the same mistakes in love again and again. But it doesn't work against it. It simply works. The following eight pieces all carry a certain dramatic weight and are dripping in heartbreak. When I looked at the back of the album for the first time and saw nine tracks, I felt like I was being ripped off. But seriously, nine songs that pack this much borderline depressing emotion into each is just the right amount to not leave you a wreck. Well played, Lykke. Well played.

'No Rest For The Wicked' was released as the official first single and with good reason. An incredibly memorable chorus carries this tale of regret and longing to swoon-worthy heights. There's beautiful choral work backing Li's striking lead performance and, as with many of the tracks, it's only a matter of time before 'No Rest For The Wicked' is picked up by a slew of TV shows and films to sell the d-rama of it all. Oh, the humanity etc. etc. The third number, 'Just Like A Dream' is like an emotional lucky dip. You're not going to know how you're going to feel each time you listen until it's begun. It depends on what's drawing your focus at any particular moment. The piano and chorus melodies are deceptively warm, but Li's delivery goes back and forth from holding a strong resolve to being on the verge of completely falling apart. The lyrics are totally a mixed bag of emotions. At the start, Li has had an honest look at her relationship. "I'm letting you go, I'm setting you free, I no longer love, head over heels." She accepts her heart is going to break, but she knows she'll be forgiven in time because she can't force a love that she can't feel. And then in the next breath she's begging her paramour to return to her, as the title would suggest, just like a dream.

Considering the general down vibe that permeates throughout I Never Learn, it's important to highlight that Li has managed to provide each track with an individual character and distinct sound. I'm sure that wasn't easy to do. Li's voice can occasionally lapse into territory you'll swear she might have covered already, but the musical arrangements manage to be unique AND stick to the album's core theme. 'Gunshot', a true highlight, draws you in with intriguing beats and the metaphorical shooting presented in the lyrics. Unless Lykke Li really did kill a dude one time. That would make this a non-fictional piece of writing and to her I would say, "kudos." I'm pretty sure it's just a metaphor though. "Even though it hurts, even though it scars, love me when it storms, love me when I fall, every time it breaks, every time it's torn, love me like I'm not made of stone, love me like I'm not made of stone." I'm just going to put it out there that 'Love Me Like I'm Not Made Of Stone' is perfection. Of course this is subjective to the listener, but I'm all about the depressing, emotional ballad... so this is perfection. Li's finest moment as a vocalist and songwriter. A simple arrangement. Perfection. I'll stop saying that now. Alright, one more time... perfection.

I've read that Lykke was attempting to move away from any 'pop star' labels and make her mark as a singer-songwriter with I Never Learn. But that doesn't mean she can't bust out crazy-good hooks like what we get on 'Never Gonna Love Again'. As far as hooks go, it's at like... 80s power ballad levels of amazing. Even the imagery she's creating is just that little bit 80s. 'Every time the rain falls think of me, on a lonely highway, how can we turn around the heartache, oh I, I'm alone tonight babe, and I'm never gonna love again." Heck yes. 80s. 'Sleeping Alone' works in all the right ways as a closing track, just like the opening one did. Showing that she really does never learn, the song and album end with a promise that one of our favourite Swedes will one day be with her former love again. Even though she's just spent half an hour telling you why they shouldn't be together and how hurt she was when it all ended. Where are her friends at? Obviously she doesn't have some Sex and the City circle that gathers on Fridays to get hammered and compare war stories. But if she did... she'd totally be a Charlotte. What?  

I've never been someone that 'gets' art (which you likely figured out over the course of this review). But this album? This is art that speaks to me. I listen to it and I feel like I understand it and no, not because I'm a total sad-o or crying into a bucket of Haagen-Dazs while I eat my feelings or anything along those lines. Art is supposed to move you and make you feel something. Make you feel like you 'get' it. So I 'get' this. Lykke Li has crafted her masterpiece with I Never Learn. I hope you find as much to love about it as I have.  

Matt Bond gives I Never Learn five Amanda Palmer heads out of five...

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