The best way to appreciate any work by Lykke Li is to go into it knowing nothing at all about what’s going on in her life, who produced it, who wrote on it, or any of the details reviewers typically collect on an artist to give their work context. No, with Li, everything is more enjoyable if you just listen. Let it wash over you. Commit to the soundscape she presents and live within her world, limitations and all. Accept it on her terms. It’s what she wants you to do anyway, and fighting that has always lessened my enjoyment of the Lykke Li Experience. So when the Swedish singer popped onto my radar for the first time since about 2014 with a gossip news nugget embedded into Rolling Stone’s Harry Styles cover story last summer – that she’s partnered with pop music uberproducer Jeff Bhasker (who was working on Styles’ album) and has a kid – I was sure this album was spoiled for me. What if she made a bubble gum pop album because the guy who helped fun. achieve mainstream success convinces her to give it a go? What if she writes a bunch of songs that are obviously about domestic bliss? If she’s happy now, where will I get my shot of feminine ennui? Is she still an Artist with a capital A?
I finally stopped obsessing and surrendered to so sad, so sexy ( the lower case, which is one of her aesthetic choices, extends to all of the song titles as well). Li has moved her sound from the darkest part of a Scandinavian night on day when there was hardly any sun to the bleakest part of a Bret Easton Ellis novel from the ‘80s. The 808s bump out a groove and she sings upsetting, depressing songs about grown up love, the kind where you fight all the time, feel lonely, and then party too much so you can stop feeling so much. In other words: she’s still sad and it’s still glorious.
There are a lot more credits on this album than on previous Li records, and perhaps that’s the influence of Bhasker, who serves as producer and writer on several tracks. Li’s work doesn’t suffer from more collaborations, especially since she has clearly hand-picked people who complement her, including production and co-writing by Malay (Frank Ocean) and Rostam (Vampire Weekend). Their individual production styles meld into her long-chronicled interest in hip hop, but she maintains the tricks and quirks unique to her: a particular tri-tom beat “hard rain,” a downward cascading melody on “deep end,” and oddly paced vocal arrangements across all the tracks. She gets furthest from her usual style on “jaguars in the air,” which starts with the strum of a guitar but by the end owes more to trap music. She stays out there with “sex money feelings die,” the musical equivalent of a Goddard film in its torturousness. “bad woman” and “two nights” sit at opposite ends of the breakup spectrum, while “better alone” might become the go-to anthem for that moment when you realize you’re adulting in a relationship.
This LP truly lives up to its title, which may be the biggest surprise of all. And going forward, to my fellow music journalists: please put spoilers on all your stories about Li’s personal life so they can be avoided by fans like me.