Lykke Li is the latest in the onslaught of Swedish pop artists to invade America. I wonder at what point our Scandinavian overlords are going to start insisting that we eat lutefisk? (If you have never been exposed to the culinary atrocity -- count yourself lucky!)
This is the young Ms. Li's debut record, and she collaborates with Bjorn Yttling, the middle third of Peter, Bjorn, and John. In fact, Yttling is her song-writing partner on the first five songs of this LP. There are fourteen songs total, and i think that the way the songs change as the album develops is interesting.
The record starts with an abstract piece of spoken word and strange synth sounds. This comes across as pretentious, as if it is trying to be deep and not really succeeding. The next tune is her hit, the Yttling co-penned pop masterpiece Dance, Dance, Dance. If you haven't heard this confection, you need to. It is everything that is wonderful about Swedish pop -- it is wide open and minimal, yet seems to dominate an auditory space. The beat is simple, just a scattered tapping, yet it makes you want to get up and jump around. Li sings liltingly over this. Really lovely.
The next song is a little darker. A male voice (presumably Yttling) joins in, and there is a thudding bass riff and some staccato piano over a hand-clapping sort of beat. The song is called I'm Good, I'm Gone, and is another piece of timeless pop.
On Let It Fall, Li gets her hip-hop on, with a slight sampled beat and a deep spoken rhyme. Not bad i guess. Then on My Love, Yttling has Li sing a ballad. There is strummed guitar, her voice faint and delicate, some soaring strings, and Beach Boys like harmonies on the languid chorus.
By this point in the record, i am getting sick of the formulaic approach to it all. Is there some school in Sweden where people study the old Abba records, memorizing a pure essence of pop? Fortunately, this is the end of that portion of the record. The remaining nine songs are penned by Li herself, without help from Bjorn Yttling. So how does she fair on her own?
On her own, actually, she shines. No song of the remaining nine on this record reach the timeless quality of Dance, Dance, Dance (which could have been done just as well by Abba, or The Cardigans, or Peter, Bjorn, and John singing in falsetto!), but then again none of them reach the sheer formulaicness of My Love either. Instead, these tunes show Lykke Li as a young woman with some musical talent and a vision. She breaks free of the formula, making music that seems … honest and personal.
So who is Lykke Li in these songs? Is she just another Swedish pop starlet, an anonymous smile under a shock of blond hair? Well, i am not sure. But that's okay, because Li is not sure yet either. That is the point of a lot of great music -- it is about discovery. An artist needs to play with sound, with song-writing, with the craft, and find out what they really have to say. It might take years and numerous records, but such a journey is (usually) worth it. Morrissey and Marr had to work towards The Queen Is Dead. Superchunk were on their third record when everything fell apart and they released the masterpiece that is Foolish. The Stones didn't do Exile on Main Street right at the get go. No, it takes time. This, these remaining nine songs, are Li's first step.
Some of them are wonderful, like Little Bit, with her voice in layers over an utterly catchy keyboard bit. Some drag a bit, like Complaint Department, with a too deep bass riff, some techno bleeps and bloops, and a lyrical line that never really goes anywhere, but takes too long to do so. Some are fascinating for their fusion depth, like This Trumpet in My Head, with flamenco guitar and Li reciting a spoken word piece a la Kim Gordon, under a lovely mournful trumpet line. This song reminds me of Miles' excellent playing on Sketches of Spain, but alas the song is over too quickly. I also really like the album's closer, Window Blues. Here Li sings very high and light over a nice bass and piano jazz riff.
So the lesson here is that Li + Yttling = formulaic Swedish pop, which is amazing when well done (Dance, Dance, Dance and I'm good, I'm Gone), but can get tedious. However, on her own Li has some interesting ideas, and while some fail, she succeeds for the most part.
Now, i feel that i must mention Li's vocal style. She has a rather high-pitched voice. Often she has that "little girl" voice that some singers tend to have. I am not sure exactly why it is that she sometimes sounds like that and sometimes does not, but either way it creeps me out. Not the vocal style per se, but the fact that a lot of people who seem to really like that are men. The whole thing seems … vaguely pedophiliac to me. Such singing also bothers some listeners, so be forewarned. Li does not always sound like this, so i think the "little girl voice" thing here is some combination of how she is singing on certain songs along with something in the production.
I also need to mention that i amazed that EvilSponge received such a "big" promo. This album is released on Atlantic Records. That's a Major Label in case you were wondering. And i have heard some of these songs on the radio (well, Album 88, but still!). I would wager that there are astronomically more people aware of Ms. Li than there are people aware of, say, Avrocar. Interesting.