Lykke Li relocated to Los Angeles from her native Sweden to record Wounded Rhymes, the follow-up to her outstanding debut, Youth Novels (2008). On the surface, LA would seem a better fit for the songstress — the lithe, 24-year-old blonde would turn the heads of the paparazzi even if she weren’t a rising star. However, impeccable fashion sense and classic Hollywood bone structure aside, Li sounds a product of Sweden on this record, through and through. No, that doesn’t mean she’s copping ABBA or Ace of Bass — it means Wounded Rhymes is a dark record, borne of lost love and youthful frustrations, more suited in tone to the frozen lake country than the haze of sunny SoCal. It means this is a seriously heavy and seriously excellent album.
Oh, by the way, it’s also a lot of fun. Li and producer/co-composer Bjorn Yttling (of former it-group Peter Bjorn and John) have turned the volume up here. Where Youth Novels often saw Li cooing and coy, Wounded Rhymes has her belting her heart out over Yttling’s maximalist arrangements to thrilling effect. Think less “Dance, Dance, Dance” and more “Breaking It Up”. Li sounds remarkably confident on every last track, and Yttling’s wall-of-sound tendencies nicely underscore her swagger. “Youth Knows No Pain” opens the record with layers of clattering tribal percussion, an old-school organ shimmying front-and-center and begging the bassline to keep up. Li implores us to “Come on get down / Make amends, make a bow” and “Come on, honey, tear yourself to pieces / Come on, honey, give yourself completely / Do it all, though you can’t believe it / Youth knows no pain.” Yes, ma’am. She’s a firebrand, her voice toeing into prime Stevie Nicks territory, sexy and menacing all at once. She’ll spend the rest of the album contradicting this song’s titular sentiment, but she sells it here.
“I Follow Rivers”, a standout among an album of them, has Li in voyeur mode, tracing her intended lover as if he were a flowing river from start to sea. Yttling’s staccato guitar and hand-clap beat make the song pulse with the sexual energy of Li’s lyrics, all barely controlled restraint. “Love Out of Lust” swells with an aching beauty, Li’s breathy vocals begging her lover to take a chance with her: “We will live longer than I will / We will be better than I was / We can cross rivers with our will / We can do better than I can.” Her candor is utterly disarming, a moment where the lovelorn tropes of pop music sound captivating and heartfelt in a way that doesn’t even approach the sentimental. Things take a turn for the worse for Li on “Unrequited Love”, but not for us — the song uses reverb-laden clean guitar and “shoowop-shoowah” backing vocals in the best ways of classic pop, Lykke Li by way of the Shirelles. The track proves that Yttling knows when to hold back in his production, letting negative space into the mix when it will serve the song. It also displays his confidence in his muse and her ability to carry off her numbers when not surrounded by his dizzying arrangements.
First single “Get Some” offers the soon-to-be-famous couplet, “Like a shotgun needs an outcome / I’m your prostitute, you gon’ get some,” with Li delivering the line less like a come-on and more like a threat — or, as the saying goes, like a promise. The drums thunder, the synths snake, and we’re under her spell. It lasts through “Sadness Is a Blessing”, a sister track to “Unrequited Love” in the homage to classic girl-groups paid by its rhythms and melody. It lasts through the slow build of “I Know Places”, when Li drops the tough girl front and sings in a voice of surrender, trying to convince her lover — and herself — that things could be better somewhere else. The final minutes here, with their glacial keys and heartbeat drums, could go on for hours and you’d be hard-pressed to complain. When Li ends the album with its two most desperate tracks, the driving “Jerome” and slow-burning “Silent My Song”, it’s a one-two punch that concludes an absolute knockout. If it’s masochistic to start over again right away, to sign up for another emotional pummeling and another heart-bursting night on the dance floor, we may all need professional help. Either way, good luck not hitting “repeat”.