At this point, I think I can divide my favorite music into two (very) large, (very) general categories: music that cuts right down to the bone and really pretty music. Those categories are admittedly broad, but I’m confident every album I really love could be filed under one of those two headings without much trouble. Some albums, like The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips, fit very well in both categories. Before long, I’m sure I’ll be filing Lykke Li’s Wounded Rhymes next to The Soft Bulletin in that in-between world of “very pretty music that cuts right down to the bone.”
I knew nothing of Lykke Li before I heard Wounded Rhymes and a bit of lazy research didn’t turn up much of interest to me: she was born in Sweden, she’s only 25, and both of her albums were produced by the Björn from Peter, Björn, and John (although, according to Wikipedia, her family once lived on a mountaintop in Portugal). Big deal.
What matters here is that Wounded Rhymes is really fucking good. I’m guessing (or maybe just hoping) that, by year’s end, it will be one of those albums that almost everyone likes. It opens with two indelible pop songs and then throws a couple of insanely beautiful curve balls with the lovely “Love Out of Lust” and the broken-hearted, country-tinged “Unrequited Love.” So after four songs, the score is two-apiece for Masterful Pop and Sad, Pretty Tunes. Then Li mixes the two on “Sadness is a Blessing,” a song which as been stuck in my head off and on for about a week now. In fact, I just now realized that the last album that had this effect on me was Metric’s totally awesome 2009 album Fantasies. (Side note: Isn’t it time for a new Metric record? I think we all know it is.)
Getting back to Lykke (I believe it’s pronounced “Licky,” approximately) Li, “Sadness is a Blessing” and “Unrequited Love” show the depth of her musical knowledge; they’re ostensibly pop songs but they have nods to doo-wop (as does a lot of Wounded Rhymes, come to think of it), country, and even a bit of gospel/folk (ditto “I Know Places”). “Sadness is a Blessing” particularly apes the oldies, with its portrayal of an old-fashioned courtship between a nice young lady and Sadness (“Oh, Sadness/ I’m your girl”), who probably dresses better than those 1950s greaser guys did.
The themes of Wounded Rhymes, if the title isn’t helping you guess, are love and loss and because Li is young, those themes will be writ large or they’ll not be writ at all, thanks very much (by the way, I’m not saying “Li is young” to be condescending about her age – I’m young, for fuck’s sake, though not quite as young as Ms. Li). Hell, the opening track is called “Youth Knows No Pain” and it urges the listener to “blow yourself to pieces” and “do it all/ although you can’t believe it.” It’s an incantation that begins forty minutes of musical magic (that ends with the appropriately haunting “Silent My Song”) and I’m sure it will be the perfect soundtrack to a summer of being destroyed by and/or destroying yourself in love. There’s more than one occasion on Wounded Rhymes where a connection is drawn between addiction and romance and your own amorous misadventures will probably determine the degree to which you identify with that.
Instrumentally, Wounded Rhymes is absolutely laden with percussion – “percussion” and “vocals/background vocals” are by far the two most frequently credited instruments on the album. There are harmonies galore and the uptempo tracks ride waves of pounding and fluttering drums. In all that bouncing, percussive turmoil, songs like “Unrequited Love” and “I Know Places” would be great spots to stop and catch your breath, if they weren’t so breathtakingly beautiful themselves. But that’s what makes these ten tracks so great – they’re unrelenting, both in victory and defeat.
It need hardly be said at this point (I would like to think I’ve been implying it thus far), but Lykke Li is a fan-fucking-tastic vocalist, whether she’s seductively pretending to be “your prostitute” or exhorting you to blow yourself to pieces. On the ballads, her voice pierces the silence with a sadness worthy of Billie Holiday and on the bouncier tunes, she renders every chorus in bright colors with just a hint of the darkness that permeates Wounded Rhymes. Because, as I’ve said, I don’t know much about Li apart from this album, I have no idea how popular she is in the world at large. But I’ll tell you this: in a world where everyone is basically issued Lady Gaga albums on their first day of high school, I find Lykke Li a far more compelling candidate for International Pop Diva.
Part of that comes from the fact that Li’s not just telling kids they’re perfect the way they are (new Bollocks! contributor Justin Koeppen had no small amount of beef with Ms. Gaga on this very topic). Instead, she’s advocating for the accumulation of experience – good and bad – as a means of living life to the very fullest. I don’t think Lady Gaga is in favor of complacency, but her songs (and, to be fair, the songs of a lot of other radio pop starlets) seem like banal platitudes next to the hard-won optimism of songs like “Youth Knows No Pain.” There’s an incredible youthful determination underlying every single sad sentiment on Wounded Rhymes; yes, Lykke Li is chronicling a lot of heartbreak and pain on these ten songs, but there’s never a single second of doubt that she’ll get up and do it all again.
Even if you don’t need Wounded Rhymes to get you over a devastating break-up (and I hope you don’t), it’s not to be missed by fans of awesome pop music. Or even fans of awesome music. Or fans of awesome things. You get the idea. Take the rest of the day off work, acquire this album by your favorite method, and spend the rest of the day reveling in it.