In April 2011 Lykke Li made an unlikely appearance at the old Tower Records for Record Store Day. With several hundred happy punters crammed in amongst the vinyl, she performed material from her (at the time) recently released second album and international breakthrough ‘Wounded Rhymes’, and absolutely blew the rest of the line up out of the water. It took all of three minutes to identify Li’s stand out live asset, one that an album and a significant step up in stage size has done little to change: honeyed soprano vocals applied to poetic emotional trauma. We were hooked.
There’s an obvious hole to be picked in tonight’s Vicar Street performance from where we’re standing, though, and it’s noticeable precisely because of those stand out attributes. Tonight’s layering. Li’s voice is gorgeous – flawlessly so at times – but too often overpowered amongst the heftier corners of the set. It’s eminently noticeable, but also just about the only negative on a night where the well-travelled Swedish songstress proves that charmer of a second album was no flash in the pan.
Undoubtedly the strength in depth of Lykke’s set has improved dramatically since the addition of ‘I Never Learn’, too. There’s more of that raw emotion, making for a whole that’s a bit of a tearjerker, but in all the right ways. The obvious – the poundingly raw ‘Sadness Is A Blessing’ and the desolate ‘I Follow Rivers’ – both creep right under the skin and fiddle with the exposed nerves of even the wary. They’re still performed with that emotional depth of three years ago, like Li’s reporting back on the tears she cried into her pillow the night before last.
There’s strength to be found in the new album, too, in the defiance of Li’s heartache anthems. The Swede fled to Los Angeles after a particularly harsh break up before writing the album, and while she’s clearly recovered some serious good form in the meantime, releases like the title track and set opener, and ‘Sleeping Alone’ wouldn’t be the same without being so grindingly personal. The nerve-wrenching emotion of it all can be bordering on uncomfortable to watch – like peering unbidden through a living room window during a fight – but its captivating too, and forges connections that feel like they go beyond the roles of performer and audience.
An odd mid-set aside comes in the form of Drake Cover ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’, reformatted as a darkly lit, slow-flow pop song that fades into the background somewhat next to the rest of the evening. It’s pleasant and markedly downbeat, but you can hear when Lykkemeans what she says in the heft of tracks like ‘Never Gonna Love Again’ and recent single ‘No Rest For The Wicked’.
The stage set up tonight adds to that tone, too. It’s seemingly built around a kind of enchanted forest, and sees Li drifts amongst her band – who are set amidst swirling net drapes – while their backlit silhouettes add to the posed drama of it all. It’s clever, especially in the changes of mood that Li’s own caped movements and the atmospheric backing can offer.
We can’t argue, Li’s development is stunning. Her limited flaws largely lie in the technical set up tonight, and are overridden comfortably by the dense emotion the touring occasion still seems to pump through her veins. If she were to produce genuine perfection, in fact, it might just subtract from the sheer gloomy weightiness of it all. The relatively short set time – just 14 songs – keeps that intensity on a knife edge. We wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but sometimes tragedy really does seem to add up to more. James Hendicott
Check out Alessio Michelini’s photos from the show below.