[25 March 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Twenty-one-year-old Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li Timotej Zachrisson, or Lykke Li for short, has been steadily building a buzz among the bloggers since late 2007, and for good reason. After all, a comely young artist with sumptuously fragile voice and a knack for extraordinary pop hooks, coming from a part of the world that simply can do no wrong when it comes to good, smart pop music, and whose debut full-length Youth Novels has been produced by Björn Yttling of indie darlings Peter, Bjorn & John, is the kind of stuff that begs for internet hype. And true enough, thanks to a knockout single in “Little Bit”, numerous popular YouTube clips (a bathroom performance by she and her band is especially charming), and a gregarious, energetic presence in concert, that groundswell of word-of-mouth appears to be cresting at just the right time: Youth Novels debuted at number one on the Swedish album charts, the ravenous UK music press has leaped boisterously onto the bandwagon, and a North American release date is imminent.
And for once, all the praise form the bloggers and music scribes is completely warranted. Exuding the kind of ambition and open defiance of convention that could only come from an artist just barely out of her teens, Youth Novels, while not without its share of bumps, is an extraordinary first album. With famed Swedish pop producer Lasse Mårtén assisting (the guy behind Kelly Clarkson’s ingenious mainstream-to-indie poptimist crossover smash “Since U Been Gone”), Lykke Li and Yttling have created a surprisingly stark-sounding album, an enticing blend of Robyn’s unpretentious dance-pop and El Perro del Mar’s introspection and tenderness. For a record whose thematic center is the hormonally-enhanced, bipolar passion of one’s teenage years, it’s remarkably mature-sounding.
Normally these days, you’d expect a song that includes acoustic guitar, piano, synth, celeste, vibraphones, theremin, and saxophone to fly completely off the handle in an overbearing Jon Brion-esque manner, but “Dance Dance Dance” is a good example of the album’s careful restraint, a furtively plucked guitar providing the lone instrumental melody, lightly tapped cowbells adding a whimsical feel, the song building to a sublime little climax, Lykke Li’s tender voice maintaining an even keel throughout.
That organic feel dominates much of the album. The reggae-tinged “Let it Fall” is comprised primarily of a simple, thrumming acoustic bassline and gentle flourishes of synth, Rhodes piano, and acoustic guitar, Lykke Li’s endearingly melodramatic lyrics taking center stage (“I like it salt, I like it wet, like my make-up in a mess, so I cry hard, let it fall, and I won’t stop until my tears are all shed”). The pretty, harpsichord-enhanced “Hanging High” and especially the aching “Time Flies”, which has Lykke Li singing in a high register, both bear a striking resemblance to the sad, self-deprecating Swedish pop of El Perro del Mar, and while the delightfully murky stomp of the jealousy-riddled “Window Blues” is the kind of song you can envision Tom Waits performing, this petite Swede with the girlish voice sells it just as effectively. The closest we get to a complete band performance is on the fabulous “I’m Good, “I’m Gone”, a snappy yet ominous piano/bass line adding a touch of darkness before the song bursts into its sneering chorus, Lykke Li’s humorously suggestive imagery (“butter on my piece of bun”?) shifting into a direct attack on her fella: “If you say I aim too high from down below, well say it now cause when I’m gone you’ll be calling, but I won’t be at the phone.”
Top marks, though, go to the gorgeous “Little Bit”, which has turned into one of the more memorable singles of the past year and a half. Again, its approach is far more subtle that most contemporary pop singles would ever dare to be, its gentle, slightly distorted bass synth propelled by the faintest traces of percussion, both electronic and acoustic, Yttling providing mandolin accents during the chouses. But it’s Lykke Li who commands our attention, delivering as perfect a hook in the chorus that rivals Robyn’s best work, but not before making us fall off our chairs with a second verse that tosses aside all nuance in favor of direct, unadulterated lust:
And for you I keep my legs apart,
And forget about my tainted heart,
And I will never ever be the first to say it, but
Still I, yes you know
I would do it, push the button,
Pull the trigger,
Climb a mountain,
Jump off a cliff cause you know baby I love love you a little bit
Her name sounding like a play on the Norwegian word lykkelig, meaning “happy”, the similarity seems rather fitting considering the effervescence Lykke Li displays both onstage and on record. At times Youth Novels feels like it’s straining to bowl us over (it’s a bold idea, but really, does any album need two spoken word tracks?), but even its slight mis-steps have a way of winning us over in the end. Classy, fun, sensual, and more grown-up than you’d expect, it’s the kind of confident debut that puts the Kate Nashes of the world to shame.