Tuesday, June 12, 2018

So Sad So Sexy | Lykke Li



America has never really taken to Lykke Li. With a discography of indie-bent pop, she generally lingered just outside of American pop culture’s scope of consciousness, jumping into the frame only for a Twilight soundtrack contribution. (That stunning piano ballad, "Possibility," has already outlived the legacy of the vampire romance series, might I add.) Nevertheless, by the sounds of her fourth studio album, she sure has taken to America quite well.

A Swedish implant, she resides in the United States, where hip-hop has dominated airwaves for the past few years. Its influences have bled into pop music for much longer than its radio domination, but until now, Li’s music has been immune to that. When Lana Del Rey released Born To Die in 2012, Li was fresh off the European success of “I Follow Rivers.” When the Weeknd slid into place on the Billboard charts with Beauty Behind the Madness in 2015, she had just released the collection of heartbroken pop ballads, I Never Learn.

Four albums deep, Li decides to turn her attention toward the trend and away from the fuzzy, neo-tribal sound that carried her this far. Signaling a drastic shift into synthetic instrumentation and striking minimalism, "Hard Rain" and "Deep End," the first tracks to be released from her fourth studio album, find her processed voice gulping for air amid tinny trap beats and buzzing bass. The entrancing lead-in tracks preface So Sad So Sexy, a 10-track set that document Li at her most strained emotionally and at her most willing musically.

So Sad So Sexy comes after the loss of her mother and the birth of her first son, fathered by producer and musician Jeff Bhasker. It seems strange for her to record as a new mother in a presumably stable relationship. (Her son was born in 2016, and Bhasker is still around, having co-written or co-produced many tracks on this record.) But it seems with stability came paranoia: "Two nights in a row, where’d you go? I’ve been smoking. Somebody else. I think you’re out there with someone else," she sings on the hazy "Two Nights." It stirs visions of an angry Li, smoking in a chair under a lamp in the living room as she waits for her partner to arrive home.

Other tracks, meanwhile, lend themselves more to a good cry in bed. Even her most greyscale tracks can paint detailed scenes, like the swaying "Last Piece" or the title track, a sultry cut that frames the rest of the nine tracks in a small period of turbulence. Even still, “Bad Woman” might just be the record’s quintessential sad song. In the ballad of succinct harmonies, Li tries to excuse her distress: “I’ve been a bad woman, but I’m still your woman. I’ll understand if you leave me, just go. Just don’t go before I show you what’s behind all of my sorrow,” she sings. 

Cracks in the wall that covers her former framework can be heard across the record, though most of them can be chalked up to fragility. Though it can draw a bit thin, her woozy, hip-hop-induced recollection of her relationship anxiety is her most palatable and infectious work – and seemingly, her most therapeutic. A digitized whimper trails the record’s most optimistic line, coming on the finale: “We could be utopia, utopia. You and me, utopia, utopia.” Even when considering the nine other tracks in the record, it’s hard to believe that moan is an echo of pain. As the sunny "Utopia" closes the record, she makes it clear that she has swam to the surface of her turmoil and can breathe easy once again.

So Sad So Sexy is out now under RCA Records.

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Maira Gall