[Note: for those who like to read aloud or those for whom the act of reading includes some sort of internal narrator speaking the words in your brain, "Lykke Li," is pronounced "LICK-eh Lee."]
My normal level of unjustifiable social anxiety and general desire to appear to the world as stolid and stoic usually prevents me from doing much more than tapping my toes when I hear a particularly catchy song. Yet here I am in a coffee shop surrounded by at least a dozen strangers—strangers of whose gaze I would normally be hyperaware and as a result confined in my reaction to music—and the moment the second song on Lykke Li's debut album, Youth Novels, starts, the beat moves up from my toes to my torso. I sway slightly front-to-back and side-to-side, freeing the beat to move into my hands—distracting them from typing in any rhythm besides that laid down by the beat—and continuing up into my head, which nods and bobs without my initially noticing it. "Dance, Dance, Dance," the song title commands and, damnit, in my own small way I have acquiesced.
This is pop music done right and riding the tide—as about every other person to have reviewed this album has noted—of the current wave of Scandinavian pop (cf. Jens Lekman, Robyn, The Knife, José González, Peter Bjorn and John—the Bjorn of which is the very same Bjorn Yttling who shares co-writing credits with Ms. Li of every song on the album) that is pillaging ears and plundering wallets worldwide like a more polite horde of so many of their Viking forebears. The music is equal parts M.I.A.-style rough-hewn beats and Phillip-Glass-cum-Sufjan-Stevens-like minimalist melodies with Lykke Li's wispy vocals floating above whatever experimental pop vamping has been set beneath her. And while each song is built around the repetition and layering of loops, the album avoids staleness by reaching into a gig bag so deep that I swear every song has at least one instrument on it that isn't used in any other: Theremins, saxophones, trumpets, harpsichords, mellotrons, clapping hands and stomping feet, to name just a few.
Bookended by the ethereal "Melodies & Desires," whose synth-heavy layering evokes memories of the Alan Parsons Project (or perhaps early Mike Oldfield) and the more mournful, dirge-like "Window Blues," Youth Novels is awash in hook-driven melodies and dance beats drenched in reverb—some songs even sound as though they were recorded in empty concert halls or deserted subway stations—interrupted occasionally by less foot-tappy (although every bit as ear-catchy) songs like "My Love" or "Hanging High," the former of which, by virtue of its orchestration and tight vocal harmonies, sounds like a Pet Sounds outtake, the latter of which sounds like it's straight from an Angelo Badalamenti score. My having heard Badalamenti in "Hanging High," was rather fortuitous, since I was struggling to find the appropriate singer to whom I might compare Lykke Li—it was tempting to go with Portishead's Beth Gibbons, but no, that's not quite the voice Lykke Li has. But my mind went from Angelo Badalamenti to Julee Cruise, notable for singing the lyrics to the theme from Twin Peaks ("Falling") in the pilot episode. Similarly, Lykke's soprano cracks and aches and fades in and out of whispered tones on fourteen songs about love.
Lyrically, the songs follow the lead of their musical composition. Lykke Li often finds herself repeating words and phrases over and over again. "I think I'm a little bit, little bit, a little bit in love with you / But only if you're a little bit, little bit, little bit in la-la-la-la-love with me," she chirps in the lead single from the album, "Little Bit." Similarly in "Let it Fall," the word "weep" and the title phrase seem to make up 50% of the total words sung. This is not to the detriment of the songs, however—much like Mike Doughty can repeat a single word or phrase ad infinitum, with each iteration adding to the previous, so too can Lykke Li (whose very name's alliteration practically begs for mantra-style repetition: lykke li lykke li lykke li) keep repeating "Don't you let me go, let me go tonight" for an entire chorus, chorus after chorus, and the driving insistence of the drums pushes her voice forward and lends her plea a sincerity as she subtly halts on the last "tonight."
And while the temptation of young pop lyricists is to cast the topic of love in the strongest terms possible (or even worse, clichés), Lykke Li avoids this ... mostly—there's a line in "Hanging High" for which I just can't forgive her: "These razors cutting sharp / And leaves me with an ever bleeding scar" goes a bit overboard with the overwrought, almost parodic heartbreak-as-physical-pain emo imagery. Aside from that, her lyrics are smart and range from the extreme emotional caution of "Dance Dance Dance," in which she entreats the loved one to watch her movement rather than listen to her words, since she doesn't quite know how to express herself, to sneering at an ex who wants to use her to vent about a new love in "Complaint Department." Then of course, there's the attention-getting line from "Little Bit": "And for you I keep my legs apart" (which any reviewer would be remiss in neglecting to mention—google it ... you'll see). But this pales in comparison to a few verses later where in thinking of her lover she gets so caught up in the thought of him and love and her and him loving her and her loving him that she ends up cutting herself short of words and reducing herself to silence: "I would do it / You'd say it / You'd mean it / I would let you do it / It was you and I and I only / Ha hm."
Stronger in its first half than the second, this is a formidable and interesting debut that ought to be given a listen by anyone who thinks that contemporary pop music is a soulless, cookie-cutter venture. Lykke Li's about to prove you wrong.
Favorite Track: "Let It Fall"