Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Lykke Li - Youth Novels


Coming in at fourteen tracks, this album would have benefited from being a few tracks shorter. All the same, it’s a remarkably different debut; the vocals are fragile, the variation knowing. There’s an underlying - even superseding – minimalism that holds the songs together. And that’s why some of the offerings are so astonishing. The emotion is raw and fragile but the high, saccharine register gives it a confusing sugar-coating.Opening with Kraftwerk-meets-Madonna spoken-word mantra ‘Melodies & Desires’ isn’t the best idea – it’s overly pretentious, too consciously zen. “You’ll be the rhythm and I’ll be the beat/And I’ll be the rhythm and you’ll be the beat” sings Sweden’s Lykke Li; it’s certainly a fitting introduction to the key dichotomies throughout, but it’s also a false lead.

The album progresses rapidly through the twitchy, minimal tribalism and cowbell vacuum interludes on ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’; the flinches of bizarre percussion, comforting repetition and yo-yo vocals on ‘I’m Good, I’m Gone’; and the beat-led, syncopated snatch ‘Let It Fall’. Throughout this strong and varied series of songs, one thing remains - a very slightly flat vocal which turns out to be a laudible stylistic trick. But that same flatness grates in parts as despite everything around it changing, it remains. It’s immovable and extremely out of place on more twee takes like ‘Hanging High’.

As the album continues, it begins to tire a tad - ‘Tonight’ feels too overwrought, ‘The Trumpet In My Head’ strangely evoking Sting. To elucidate, it’s because there’s a fine line between insubstantial and minimal. ‘My Love’ dances the line, veering towards the more favourable side of it after repeated listens. The Bossa rhythms and drifting harmonies are easy on the ear but it lacks immediate direction - albeit the song’s about waiting for a lover in a state of stagnancy, so it’s probably justified. So that’s a pretty circular point, but it’s fairer to say that the structure of sparse verse/broad-spanning harmony-punctuated harmony feels all too predictable five tracks in.

The song that got Lykke Li noticed, ‘Little Bit’, is of course a snippet of brilliance. It combines tropicalia, electro and low-slung folk with a shudderingly sexy vocal – it showcases just how emotions are laid on the line throughout this album, but more to the point has something extraordinary; a really special hook that lodges itself in the brain by reflex. And then there’s ‘Complaint Department’, the starkest contrast yet to Li’s syrupy vocal timbre – the words remain soft but the loops are bleak and damaged. It’s difficult to warm to though and despite the album never once staying in one place, it feels strange that this track has ever found itself here. It’s admirably followed by the nursery-rhyme feyness of ‘Breaking It Up’, with sounds of a children’s choir and all. Which is crying out for a Metronomy remix, may I add.

The closing three tracks don’t go down a treat, to be frank – the bare emotions are on display as ever, but without the idiosyncrasies El Perro Del Mar does a better job. ‘Time Flies’ equally lacks the contrasts found elsewhere but it’s still an admirable offering considering that this is a debut record - Bj√∂rn Yttling’s production is top notch too, making every uber-vibration count.
The hard-hitting contrasts between songs may prove isolating at first but if you give Lykke Li the chance, you’ll fall for her. The songs are dainty, sure – but there’s a sandpaper-rough edge around every note’s perimeter. Let’s hope she remembers the quality control button next time around – if she’d done so this time, this album would be a pop phenomenon of the finest calibre.

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