The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Lykke Li
I Never Learn Joe Sweeney , May 12th, 2014 07:45

Is it better to have loved and been shot in the head, or to have never loved at all? This is the grim scenario we're confronted with on 'Gunshot', one of several over-the-top relationship eulogies that haunt Lykke Li's third album. Those who had their hearts set on another batch of coy, cloudy electro-pop from the Swedish singer/songwriter might consider the song a bummer, but for the rest of us, it and the other eight tracks that comprise I Never Learn make for a stirring, pristinely rendered expression of heartache.

The artist isn't interested in poetry here. She fills her songs with theatrical 1980s adult contemporary visions – rainy days on lonely roads; hearts that shatter and crack; other hearts that are made of steel; the one that got away. Every lyric lands, however, because they're not the result of laziness – their author is just too wracked with guilt to bullshit us.

And the music only compounds the melodrama. Co-producers Li, Björn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn and John) and Greg Kurstin (Kelly Clarkson, Pink) rely less on the synths and drum machines of her first two records, making way for subdued piano chords and tom-heavy drumming that sound like they're blasted through echo chambers. Her arrangements have never been this quiet, her equalization never this close to the red. 'Gunshot' relies on a rumbling, left hand piano run for most of its low end, but it feels substantial. 'Heart Of Steel' is a middling ballad of murky guitar noodling, until it explodes into a choral cloudburst. 'Never Gonna Love Again' pushes the formula to the edge, cranking up the reverb and the cliché count –  that it succeeds has much to do with Li's reedy voice being a dead ringer for Stevie Nicks. The power ballad piano and gated snares only serve to deepen the mystery and conviction of her singing.

For the first half of the record, it almost seems like Li might be putting us on. I Never Learn is supposedly the last installment of a trilogy, and its “Enya Sings Monster Ballads” approach, while gorgeous and ambitious and unlike anything in pop music these days, makes one wonder if we're listening to an ironic concept album about the preposterous works of art that people tend to use as emotional gauze. That is, until the album's centerpiece starts to play. 'Love Me Like I'm Not Made Of Stone' pairs Li with nothing more than a softly strummed acoustic guitar, refusing to distract us from her harrowing lyric sheet. “Go ahead, go ahead/Love me deep, until you can't,” she sings, a human being pleading for clemency. With the period touches of the rest of the album stripped away, all that's left is a stunning document of need. If you don't feel something while it's playing, well then you know what you're made of.

The shadow of that song looms large on the rest of I Never Learn. It's a testament to how melodrama and reality don't need to be mutually exclusive. Much is made of song lyrics that sound like people talk. But when we're really hurting, when we know we've destroyed something special, there's nothing schmaltzy about a broken heart.