Monday, June 6, 2011

Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes (2011)



In interviews, Swede sensation Lykke Li states that she was inspired on her second album by exposure to the downright bizarre combination of Alan Lomax's stirring field recordings and the outsized L.A. rock of Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. Who knows how these primal bases get absorbed into the music she's written and crafted here, but the strong affinity I hear is with Spector, Shadow Morton, the girl groups of the early '60s. In which case, Lykke can join the club. From Camera Obscura to She & Him to Tennis, no territory or root is more amply plundered by the modern rock and pop.

But like her fellow countryman Robyn, Lykke has absorbed something from the Shangri-Las and the Ronettes, a crucial element that all of their American descendents save perhaps Amy Winehouse have missed: a toughness, a venom, an aggression. Ronnie Spector's voice was not merely wounded, it snarled and stabbed back; Darlene Love had a more conventionally sweet tone, but even she betrayed a darkness, a heart you'd never want to break, not merely because you'd treasure it above all else but because you'd fear the repercussions. The Shangri-Las, of course, were pure threat, and the scrappy big sisters in the Marvelettes would never let anyone get away with walking all over them. When Zooey Deschanel coos and chirps on a charming She & Him number like "Over It Over Again," the gulf between that performance and some filthy chestnut like Shape and Sizes' "Rain on My Face" or Wendy Rene's "After Laughter Comes Tears" (once covered by Lykke Li, rendering her automatically intriguing in my book) or Denise & Co.'s incredibly tough-minded, obscure (perhaps because of the threat?) "Take Me As I Am" is staggering.

Lykke stomps all over this light touch; whatever else her music is, it commands respect -- it is hardly cutesy or conveniently ironic. Thus far, her work isn't as intelligent as Robyn's, Madonna's, or even the coy but brilliant Camera Obscura's, but why would it be? Should Wikipedia be trusted, she's just recently turned twenty-five. Based on the bionic groove and metallic smash on the garage opener "Youth Knows No Pain," which despite its polish instantly recalls the Denise & Co. oddity, she knows more than I did at twenty-five. And what she knows best is the cathartic joy of performing pop, a crucial variance on Madonna, whose thrill seemed to come from crafting it, presenting it; Lykke writes well enough, not nearly as well yet as Madonna, but what makes Wounded Rhymes a valuable record is hearing her actively conquer each of these songs, to bring their conventions and quirks into a realm of bellowing emotion, rendering much of their banality beside the point.

She's a mainstream pop performer in her own country, which is great; what's better is that she's an indie rock stalwart in the U.S., which is a field desperately in need of strong women. Lykke has an individualistic fervor that will serve her well in the future; for most, her vague roughness will call Stevie Nicks to mind. There's no "Gold Dust Woman" or "Dreams" here, as this record is clearly a chapter in a larger document that will display her discovery of her voice. That's the only destructive thing, I think, about a record like this garnering such ecstatic praise; it's clearly a work in progress. A career in progress, rather.

That particular part of the story is best told by a pair of high-concept pieces that don't quite make it but are still indelibly charming. "Rich Kids Blues" is an adamantly well-meaning bit of cleverness with more of the huge garage sound; most intriguingly, it marries its careful rawness to a brilliantly integrated dance-pop production that turns upside down every cookie cutter notion of what any of the mentioned genres are supposed to do. But it can't really overcome its not terribly imaginative writing and a searching performance. It's full of ideas, maybe too many. Same goes for "Jerome," late on the record and surely the standout oddity here, leading a diluted Eno dirge into hyperkinetically busy '80s pop. "I Follow Rivers" covers up those seams but is equally jam-packed, passing vague West African polyrhythmics carefully under its strong wintry synthpop in the vein of Music for the Masses, and fusing it all with a brutal but rapturous pop menace. It's nearly overloaded, too much to comprehend. But it does work.

The issue being, then, that any one of those three concepts would've been enough to make "I Follow Rivers" an interesting and valuable song. Why not spread that around? Too many others are bereft of any idea besides what seems like a vague desire to contrast Lykke Li's image of pop spectacle with an unfettered vulnerability, which is tolerable enough at times (the stark, Feist-like "Unrequited Love," which boasts some of the album's best lyrics) but cannot inject any inspiration into something like "Love Out of Lust." She can cover it with the goofball Wilson Phillipsisms of "Silent My Song," but it seems that the balladry stylistics she's toying with simply don't suit her well at all -- the contrast of "I Know Places" with the songs around it is particularly unfavorable. But the notion seems vital to her, so perhaps it just isn't time yet.

Given all that, past the first two head-spinning tracks, it might seem easy to write this off as the latest in an increasingly long line of recent semi-pop records that give off more boredom than the crazed level of hype they've received would imply. The songs do ultimately run together -- many would be stronger on their own, but the 45rpm era that could have made Lykke Li a true great is long gone -- but then she can toss off something like the ridiculous single "Get Some," a magical moment of the sort of intensely felt and smart dance pop that used to be Madonna's stock in trade. This massive Bo Diddley-derived sensual banger is a DJ's dream, and Lykke's playful vocals are what make it spin so persuasively.

If I had to guess, though, I'd say the key to the record is "Sadness Is a Blessing," not simply because it provides the title. If the independent but wildly sexual spirit that permeates the record is Lykke's prime interest at this point, she has nothing to prove beyond what she achieves on this remarkable track, which lets its influences tower. Opening with an enormous and sad "Be My Baby" reprise, against classic piano and drum persuasion, she lets a Roy Orbison-like drama build in her perfectly measured but impeccably off-the-rails vocal until it seems ready to burst, which it never quite does because the entire song is the explosion. Her voice wraps around nutty lyrics -- "Sadness is my boyfriend / Oh sadness, I'm your girl" -- until their sheer silliness becomes profoundly sad, touching. The hybrid of a zillion '50s and '60s pop conventions and '70s freak-flag-high eccentricties can be likened only to Leonard Cohen and Phil Spector's remarkable 1977 recording "Memories," the wildest, most over-the-top track either of them ever issued. In it, Cohen snarls and barks and retreats like a lost puppy into the carnal submission, explicit in his song, merely implied by Lykke's. My first temptation was to consider the two songs as a conversation, but on reflection, that's hardly the case -- they are merely two reactions to the same lover, the same desperation. If Lykke can give in to this abyss more next time, her madness will become contagious to thousands.

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