I Never Learn, the third album by Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li, was released in 2014 but remained in my peripheral vision until now. The record produced a couple of hits, with ‘No Rest For the Wicked’ being the biggest and making it all the way to background songs they play on international flights (Helsinki to London, courtesy of Norwegian Air Shuttle), but otherwise it was not difficult to remain ignorant of the album. A meditation on break-up, I Never Learn does not provide the simple attitudes of Taylor Swift productions (‘I say, “I hate you,” we break up, you call me, “I love you.”’) and had less of chance to become a staple of popular culture.
Li’s highest-peaking release in the UK and America, I Never Learn received positive reviews from critics who praised the maturity of the work and its emotional force. The record was intended as the final instalment in a musical trilogy telling the story of ‘a woman in her twenties and her search for love and herself’, with earlier albums Youth Novels (2008) and Wounded Rhymes (2011) completing the set. The temporal transition also meant a stylistic one: if Youth Novels was synth- and dance pop, I Never Learn is more traditional in its sound, with melancholy ballads and notes of dark romanticism. The trilogy is a markedly personal, cyclical journey that can happen with an artist, should they sign up a three-album deal at the age of 21 and have a talent for being sad. Also, see Adele.
Back in 2011, Wounded Rhymes brought me a lot of — I was about to type ‘joy’, but ‘joy’ is definitely the wrong word. ‘Pleasure’ is closer. Pleasure of recognition, of coming across a truth, of hearing an expression of your own feelings. The same can be said for I Never Learn, although the latter favours density over variety.
There is a difference between blues and depression, and melancholy can be art. As suggested by the title, I Never Learn is not a happy upbeat record, but it is full of longing and unfulfilled yet persistent hope, as opposed to bitter regret.
Categorised as indie pop, musically the album relies on Lykke Li’s vocals, layered or unaided, and repetitive melodic tunes. There are echoes of the 1980s in the synthesised sound and in the style of power ballads that provide focal points of the album (‘Gunshot’, ‘Never Gonna Love Again’). ‘Never Gonna Love Again’ is, in a way, a summary of the record, a declaration so determined and coming from a place so tragic that the break-up feels like a celebration and freedom. There are actual fireworks in the background of the song’s video.
In a very favourable review written by Ian Cohen for Pitchfork, he states the following:
We’re used to breakup albums that assume you just want to crawl into a hole and die, but I Never Learn is for the times when heartbreak is so life-affirming that you want to share the feeling with the world.
Often favouring black over other colours for her personal style, Lykke Li is not a stranger to Gothic aesthetics yet there is nothing theatrical or pretend about her music. Yes, hers are big words and large gestures, and ‘never’ is mentioned often, but there is precision and honesty to the songs. In comparison to my two favourite bands, Belle & Sebastian and The National, Li does not observe herself experiencing an emotion while being slightly ironic about the fact. No, her heartbreak is here and now and for you to indulge in.
I saw Lykke Li live once, performing at Flow Festival in Helsinki in 2012. Watching her was not unlike watching a bird — a small, black-breasted, jumpy bird — that is either trying to escape from her plane of the atmosphere, or is performing an elaborate courting dance. It was fascinating. Visual examples can be found in the videos for ‘Gunshot’ and ‘Sadness Is a Blessing’ (love, love, love that short film!).
What is unusual about Li’s performance style also applies to her work. Having spent her childhood and youth between Stockholm, Portugal (including a five-year-long period when her family lived on a mountaintop), Morocco, Nepal, and India, Lykke Li emerged underexposed to the contemporary Western world and cited the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as her influences. That might be the reason why her music sounds fresh and raw.
I put I Never Learn to play the other night, and Sam, who was sitting at the same table, declared it wonderful and perfect. He spent the next day listening to the album on repeat. Having learned of the fact, I said, ‘Okay. At least we know what our break-up music will be.’
I have a poor sense of humour. And I never learn.
Discography: Lykke Li, I Never Learn. Sweden-United States. Released on LL Recordings and Atlantic Records from May 2nd, 2014. (On AllMusic)
Current album: Lykke Li, I Never Learn
Current book: Robert Hunter, Map of Days
Current TV series: BoJack Horseman, Series 1 (2014)