Don’t Shake the Axis

thLykke Li: I Never Learn, Atlantic
The opening song, the title track, promises a new direction, a filling in of some of the lighter patches in Li’s dark palette. There are echoes of Shelleyan Orphan’s first album Helleborine in the orchestration of the strings and the layering of the voices – a romantic vision of purity. But there also seems to be a loss of the damaged intensity that made Wounded Rhymes such a great album and such a step up from the tarnished innocence of Youth Novels. ‘I Never Learn’ is a stripped back song of loss, of mistakes made and repeated, a simple lyric that stings with the infection of rejection. Themes of brokenness, hurt, rejection and love gone wrong seep through the whole album. They might be born out of real pain but they are expressed in a pastel gothic that is neither devastatingly original nor dull pastiche. The slightly nasal maudlin sound of Li’s voice – melancholy swathed in grey silk – is still distinctive enough to lift her music out the of the rut of the ordinary.

‘No Rest for the Wicked’, ‘Just Like a Dream and ‘Silver Line’ slip by as gentle, understated shadows of the pulsing, twisted power of Wounded Rhymes, but ‘Gunshot’ rises with a spaced out, desultory fury that is both memorable and unsettling. Then along comes ‘Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone’ which is bluesy and minimal, just singer and guitar, but within its lyrics is an obvious memory of the Stone Roses that evokes something of their overweening ego and their fragile fallibility. It is a simple song that recaptures something of the girl-turned-to-woman restlessness of Youth Novels and it is gentle and lovely as it tries and beautifully fails to pull redemption out of wrecked relationships. ‘Never Gonna Love Again’, which follows, is such conservative, winsome, love-lorn pop that it is a real disappointment, despite being quite sweet as it swells and swirls and runs a few laps along a highway cluttered with clichés. The penultimate track, ‘Heart of Steel’, is again conventionally formed – a layering of voices to try and convince the singer that she has the strength to cope with abandonment. This is followed by ‘Sleeping Alone’ which has a similar spacey feel to ‘Gunshot’, is shot through with quiet assurance and reignites a spark of the deep, dark fire that makes Wounded Rhymes so coruscating, vital and untouchable.

I Never Learn is a good album, with no songs which stand out as extravagantly potent but with several which grow and seem to be seeking a murky place deep within my consciousness, and taken as a whole the album holds together well, not seamless, but with no ugly rifts. However, the simple fact that in talking about it I’ve had to refer so much to Lykke Li’s previous two albums tells me that I Never Learn is not a significant leap forward, it doesn’t have an especially distinctive voice of its own and while it points at some possible new avenues for the artist it doesn’t roar headlong in any direction. Or, to put it another way, this is an album about lack of commitment that lacks commitment but which might just mark a transition from the knowingness of the independent scene to the harsher light of the pop mainstream.

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