Lykke Li – Village Underground, East London 8th May 2014
This might well be the year for melancholy. Whilst Damon Albarn has releasedEveryday Robots, an album of solipsistic navel gazing that is noticeably devoid of any discernible Feel Good Inc, The Black Keys have turned blue, offering less buoyance and more moody musical sobriety. And yet none of these pared-down offerings compare to the naked expose of the soul, shiver-in-the-dark tingle that has been offered by Sweden’s Lykke Li.
It is Shoreditch – a place commonly and notoriously frequented by plastic people, those who invoke conscious affectations and studied measures of cool – that provides the curious choice of location for the UK’s low-key debut doses of the new material (BBC 6 Music Festival appearance aside). Certainly, for those in the Village Underground who might have been expecting to dance in a positive euphoria, they are met with something altogether quite different; a torn soul, fragmented, fragile and with pleading hands knelt metaphorically before them.
It is as she steps out of the shadows to join her band that it is apparent that the woman who greets the crowd is not quite the vampish strutting siren of a couple of years back. She exudes a beaten air, delicate and bruised. Opening with I Never Learn, the title track of the new record, her effortless voice, albeit drenched in a touch too much reverb, is a careening lilt begging for comfort in the face of adversity. This adversity is plastered all over her lyrics. She laments loss and pain. Her song selection plays out like a litany of suffering. This is wan, but not in the pejorative sense. It is an aching, searching proposal for unity in the face of heartbreak. She is seeking communal recognition to a very specific pain.
The looks on the faces of the people present may not quite offer in-the-moment empathy to this scenario, but they do imbue understanding. They can sense the grief and although they may not share in it or, for some, be bothered with it, there is a palpable sympathy. Lykke is, understandably, a little awkward; she’s caught in that sensitive mix of utter immersion in the words, the music and the feeling, and the disconcerting consciousness of her surroundings. This is not helped by the mobile phones that shine relentlessly upon her face. In the end, she is prompted to request for people to put them away, live in the moment and ‘chill out’ with their gadgets. Worried that the audience is ‘cross’ with her, she will apologise a few songs later (“but imagine how I feel. I’m naked up here”, she brokers). She was right to admonish in the first instance.
Perhaps the chasm in spirit ‘before’ the heartbreak and ‘after’ is most clear when the pace picks up mid-way for a brace of the old. Whilst material such as Rich Kid Blues, A Little Bit, Get Some, I Follow Rivers and Youth Knows No Pain are fervently received and well-executed, there is something amiss behind Li’s visage. It is as though when she sings these songs it is more apparent than ever that she is both here and elsewhere; like a ghostly figure revisiting ruins. Trapped, but lost in another dimension.
Some of the new material hits, some misses. On the plus side, there is the lissom punch of Gunshot, the chiming MOR of Never Gonna Love Again and the propulsive lumber of No Rest For The Wicked. On a cracked and beautiful Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone, the crowd is silenced still, as the words ring out like a klaxon of sincerity carved in pastels of pain and thrown onto the canvass of music.
The record label want I Never Learn to build on the commercial groundwork laid by the sleeper success of her last album. They won’t get it. This is not the album to take Lykke Li to the next level. And that’s a good thing. We might preserve something special, something that gets all too often lost. In a maze of greed and vanity, an artisticlapetite mort occurs. People play it safe and strangle creativity through compromise. On her current course, she could become Sweden’s very own Cat Power. That’s no bad thing.
Yearning, burning, twisting and turning behind the mic stand, she closes with Sadness is a Blessing and an elongated repeated refrain of ‘sadness is my friend’ during the coda. This has been a draining experience for audience and artist alike. It hasn’t been a resounding success, but it has been a catharsis, whether they liked it or not.
You might well say that whoever this person was who did this to Lykke Li deserves an album credit. However, it goes beyond that, they inhabit the whole thing. Even the live experience has their presence felt like a silent protagonist attempting, but ultimately failing, to throttle the heroine at the centre of the stage.
Maybe this sweet little bird flew too close to the sun. All we know now is that she is burnt, scorched and sore.However, her heart’s loss could be her art’s gain.
Written by Greg Wetherall
Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone:
Here’s a more assertive and confident Lykke from Jools Holland in 2011: