For a moment, an artist can seem supreme. Bob Dylan had it in his youth, The Strokes had it when they rolled out Is this It, and Lykke Li had it with her first album — the 2008 gem Youth Novels. Every song on the 2008 effort had something interesting and original. Kinky drums, strange and vulnerable falsetto vocals, dance choruses, immaculate melodies, the album transcended on every level and the Swedish songstress seemed like a musical savior.
In her newest effort, I Never Learn, Li delivers a more homogenous output. Thematically, the album deals with an emotional break-up. Sonically, the songs have grandiose, high production values. The noises all mesh in one layered, lavish, reverby atmosphere. Instruments are difficult to disentangle and Li’s voice gels atop this ambiance. Overall, Li goes big on this album.
Unfortunately, it all feels very formulaic. In her 2008 breakthrough, Li dazzled in her unpredictability. Here, a typical track features a dark, reverb backdrop and Li pouring out some emotional lyrics. Then, things will quiet for a second and Li will do some vocal hook leading to a huge chorus where all of the instruments loudly crash in. This formula works superbly on some songs — “Gunshot,” in particular — but formulas quickly tire. Gone is the subtlety, coyness, and variety Li showed in Youth Novels.
Only one song truly transcends, “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone.” Curiously, Li went a completely different sonic route on this track. It features a stripped Li, just vocals and guitar. Minimal effects. Li’s talents bleed through so much more effectively on this less intense arrangement. Her knack for finding subtle melody soars on this track. The ending particularly impresses where Li feels too emotional to sing full lines and can only burst out a word — “hurt… baby… scar” — she drips out. It’s a great moment in a truly transcendental song. Her voice has enough pathos and energy to carry the song. The production pyrotechnics of the other tracks do not seem necessary.
This might be a polarizing album. I Never Learn has a clean, homogenous, rich feel. If you love the anthemic formula applied to the majority of tracks, you will love this album. However, if you preferred Li for her quirky unpredictability and subtle genius with melody, you might feel like the savior let down.