Swedish indie darling Lykke Li‘s 2008 debut Youth Novels took the world by storm with her irresistible brand of sugary pop. Her high-pitched, fragile vocals paired alongside well-crafted, but not overdone, toe-tapping beats told stories of love, exuding youthful energy that one couldn’t help but smile listening to. Two years later, details of a followup to be titled Wounded Rhymes were released – fear of the dreaded sophomore slump abounded. Would Li’s cutesy vocals and catchy hooks be as captivating the second time around?
Anthemic first track “Youth Knows No Pain” quickly takes care of that question. Triumphant declarations of “Come on get down, make a mess” alongside pulsating percussion and a playful organ melody sounds nothing like the Lykke Li that serenaded us just two and a half years ago. She’s hardly making a mess, though; the vibrancy and energy on Wounded Rhymes are as crisp and clean as Youth Novels, but are radically different and, ultimately, immensely successful. In a true demonstration of growth and progression as an artist, Lykke Li’s Wounded Rhymes is a soulful, intricate album that showcases a more vocally confident and mature Li amidst a score of equally powerful and impressive instrumentation.
The most stark contrast between the fragile material on Youth Novels and Wounded Rhymes is Li herself. Whether it’s the playful banter on “I Follow Rivers” or the less-than-subtle “I’m your prostitute, you gon’ get some” on “Get Some”, Li’s lyrics throughout are sexually charged and delivered with punchy confidence, usurping her previous meek playfulness. She wears it well, as harmonies are piled on in choruses alongside soulful verse delivery; whereas Youth Novels could easily wash over the listener, Wounded Rhymes aggressively demands attention and compliance. Naturally, it’s not too difficult to oblige. Alongside a more passionate delivery, Li adventures through a variety of sonic styles throughout the album, adding depth to the already compelling listen. “Unrequited Love” pits a nearly a capella multi-part vocal harmony with a Western twang over a minimal tapping beat, showcasing the versatility of her vocal talents and convincingly mourning a lack of returned affection. “Jerome”, however, features quick verses and a breathy chorus over its heavy reverb and handclaps. The two are vastly different, but cohesive in the consistency of her powerhouse presence in the songs.
As previously mentioned, the other notable shift in Li’s sound is the instrumentation that supports her trademark vocals. Reverb-heavy base alongside scattered piano melodies and wood block tapping characterized the majority of her memorable old material. Wounded Rhymes, though, offers a less atmospheric soundscape with more percussion alongside organs and frequent layered harmonies. This intensification of the sound mirrors her vocal performance perfectly – rendering Wounded Rhymes’ tracks immediate and inescapable, especially visible on “Get Some”‘s pounding African drums. The addition of fuller music functions not only on the meticulously-crafted, superb pop songs, but on the slower, lengthier tracks as well. Lethargic grower “I Know Places” epitomizes this, as its strumming acoustic guitar grounds her ethereal vocals through the first half, only to develop into an entrancing, reverb-laden soundscape for the last two minutes. Such an endeavor would not have nearly the affect without the richness and depth of the composition.
On the third track of the album, Li croons, “That’s why you must love out of lust/Dance while you can.” While lust is generally frowned upon as irresponsible, this indulgence in the immediate, in the physical, this embracing of reckless abandon, is what makes Wounded Rhymes so triumphant. Li’s explosion of confidence and fearless experimentation add together to create an album that is sensual and immense, as substantial as it is enjoyable. She may say she’s our prostitute, but she’s the one completely in control and the one anxiously leaving us in anticipation of whatever she comes up with next. In the mean time, we’ll just keep dancing.