Lykke Li has always been sad. It’s kind of her brand.
I Never Learn was something like rock bottom for the erstwhile Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson, not in the quality of her music so much as the emotional resonance behind it. While it certainly has many of the sonic and melodic sensibilities that we have come to expect from a Swedish pop artist, the crushing heft of its inspiration permeates its entirety. It is a breakup album first and foremost, and the bits of light that shine through are largely swallowed by the darkness that most of the album is more than happy to convey.
Where in the world do you go from there? There’s a hint in the album title: so sad so sexy, despite the humility implied by its stylized lettering, implies empowerment in its sadness. It wears depression like a badge of honor; it twists heartbreak into something life-affirming.
Granted, it is still on brand. so sad so sexy is incredibly downcast, sometimes oppressively so. The difference here is that by going with big-name producers, hip-hop beats, and lyrics that at least suggest a constant wry, knowing smile, Zachrisson takes control of the narrative and shows us how to live our best, saddest life.
There are plenty of moments where this works, particularly on the first couple tracks. “Hard Rain” uses thick, vaguely synthetic vocal harmonies to great effect, offering the push and pull of dissonance and consonance, and eventually a bridge that contrasts a male voice (or perhaps a voice pitch-shifted to sound male — it’s hard to tell) with that of Zachrisson herself. Produced by ex-Vampire Weekend instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, it’s a song that has some of the personality of that band’s more reflective moments, though Lykke Li’s vocal unmistakably drives the song throughout.
Where Lykke Li’s personality starts to shine, however, is on “Deep End”, which follows “Hard Rain”. “Deep End” is a beautiful little dirge awash in water metaphor, a song that treads the thin line between swimming and drowning in a relationship, a topic that adds depth and intrigue to the sensual feel of the music. Its combination of sexuality and melancholy would be a mission statement for the album if there weren’t a song that shared the album’s name.
“So Sad So Sexy” brings just as much of both sides of the sad/sexy dichotomy to the fore as “Deep End, though more explicitly in both theme and lyric. “I was only lyin’ when I looked in your eyes / I’m cryin’ diamonds like a river inside” is a great lyric for the chorus of what is essentially an ode to break up sex, complete with a hook that’ll stick it in your head for days. Similarly, “Sex Money Feelings Die” offers a vaguely trap verse contrasting with a pure pop chorus that somehow makes the four words of the title feel more like empowerment than resignation.
It doesn’t always work. “Two Nights” saves its most interesting production for an unfortunate, uninteresting rap verse from Aminé, while Lykke Li’s own vocals drone over a repetitive beat. “Better Alone” is likely an intentionally lousy attempt at embracing the single life, though its insincerity lends another level of unfortunate distance between artist and listener. Worst of all is “Jaguars in the Air”, an ode to the club whose title is repeated enough times that it should mean something, but never quite does.
Perhaps most interesting is “Utopia”, both on its own merits and as part of this album. “Utopia” first appeared on Mother’s Day, an ode to Zachrisson’s son whose repeated refrain of “We could be / Utopia / You and me / Utopia” is a lovely little acknowledgment of just how important their relationship is to her. On this album, it’s the nail in the coffin for the whatever unhealthy relationship(s) inspired the rest of the tracks. Lykke Li is sad, she is sexy, but she doesn’t need any of it enough to outweigh what she has with her child.
Surely, there are other readings for the songs on so sad so sexy, other interpretations for the emotions Lykke Li is trying to convey. Again, that is by design — there’s a distance in these songs. Keeping the audience at arm’s length ensures that the album won’t get bogged down in pain, even as it willingly swims in that pain. While that distance also results in a slightly ephemeral experience, the result is mood music that works as well as a breakup album as it does a warm-up for the club. That’s a feat not many albums can claim.