The woman who once aspired to be the new Madonna returns after an absence of four years since her last album I Never Learn, during which she (in her own words) “took a break”, did a bit of acting, dabbled with a Swedish “super group” (LIV), gained competence in the transcendental meditation which enables her now to to her write one song after another with ease, and had a child.
So what, if anything, has she learned in that time? The main thing is that varying the songs on your album reduces tedium. As good as many of the tracks on the previous one were, with strong melodies and the occasional anthemic tendency, the majority fell loosely into the dream pop bracket and sounded pretty much the same as each other to the casual listener.
Vocally, she’s instantly identifiable here, with that slightly nasal soprano. No change there.
Opener ‘hard rain’, (all the titles are in lower case), one of four tracks released in advance of the album, is a ballad but with voice distortion that sounds like Candyman, and, straight off, a hip-hop cadence supplemented by trap beats. It also features a juxtaposed bridge that is close to orchestral in quality. She’s put down a marker; this album is going to be different.
The second track, ‘deep end’, also released as an early single and featuring as a Track of the Week in GIITTV, continues in the same vein, as well it might with three hip-hop album producers including her son’s father, Jeff Bhasker, also a mover in LIV. With slightly suggestive lyrics, it is eminently danceable and the way she sings “Indigo, deep blue, deep blue” is delightful; a sort of female Swedish chef from The Muppet Show.
The pace slows a little on the sultry ‘two nights’ which features a mercifully short bridge contribution from U.S. rapper Aminé, whose original role in his own art came in the form of “dissing” rival high schools and who now wants to be a Hollywood producer. The way things are there should be plenty of vacancies forthcoming. She thinks her man is enjoying someone else and like Whitney wants to “dance with somebody“. It’s quite a good song until Aminé shows up and interjects by trying to break the world record for speed talking while managing to rhyme dummy, sunny, tummy, bummy (?), scummy and bunny in one breath. The contrast when Lykke Li comes back in is like that between Loris Karius and Gianluigi Buffon. There’s a place for rap. I’m not sure where, but it isn’t here.
‘last piece’ is unlike anything I’ve heard from Lykke Li recently, a slow-burner of a ballad which develops into a powerful synth-fed anthem with the hip having hopped it. And it’s all-change again with ‘jaguars in the air,’ which opens with a soft acoustic guitar passage (though backed by those pesky trap beats which have returned) only to drift into a lightweight pure pop piece with Lykke Li supplying her own backing vocals.
The opening bars of ‘sex, money, feelings, die’ are those of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time after Time’ then it becomes a slower ‘deep end’. Three hearings in and without access to written lyrics I haven’t figured out for sure if she’s a prostitute who’s fallen for a client, which would be a novel approach for a song. Intriguing and well worth putting it on repeat.
The title track is exactly the sort of sentimental ballad I would expect Lauper to lay down, as she (Lykke Li) lays down with him, for the last time before walking away. I could imagine Lissie singing this one and there are elements of the mid-western rancher’s delivery in Lykke Li’s voice, too.
Pretty much could be said about the following track, ‘better alone’, an even mellower one, in which she declares herself to be “better alone than lonely”; while ‘bad woman’ again has echoes of Lissie at her most melancholic.
The final track, ‘Utopia’, begins with almost a distorted country and western flavour before evolving into hip-hop influenced dream pop if you can imagine such a thing.
Retaining a theme of disappointment in love throughout, Lykke Li has taken something of a gamble with her fourth album, going off at a tangent and putting her in some interesting company, alongside the likes of St Vincent (for whom it worked commercially while hacking off the purists) and Arcade Fire (the beginning of the rot). With many of the songs officially released online by the end of May, there have been mixed reactions from fans.
She also gambled by not having the album produced by Björn Yttling, who was responsible for the previous three, and entrusting it to three guys from a completely different background.
But the one thing she has succeeded in doing is to reintroduce the variety that had gone walkabout on the last album. There’s plenty of hip-hop influence in the early tracks though it isn’t pervasive (but the Aminé experiment doesn’t really work). There’s also enough for her own purists to latch on to, and the odd danceable track, along with some very charming introspective ballads. A compelling mix.
Crucially, does the album live up to its title? Does she transmit the concept of someone is so sexy, but so sad? It will take most people a few spins to make their mind up, but for me, she does just that.
so sad so sexy will be released on 8th June through RCA.