Lykke Li knows how to write a pop song. We all know this – every nightclub still religiously plays the Magician remix of ‘I Follow Rivers’. What the Swedish songwriter really knows though, is a sad pop song. Her latest release, so sad so sexy is no different.
This follow-up to 2014’s I Never Learn, which saw her swing more toward the acoustic side of things, dips instead into R&B and hip hop spheres and feels like a matured throwback to her debut album, Youth Novels, released a decade ago now. However, while it’s an evolved departure musically, lyrically, it’s still very much a classic Lykke Li affair and the result is uneven. While not without its merits and strong moments, the pay-off is not quite as successful as previous efforts.
The album feels modern and fresh, and the influence of other contemporary artists is loud and clear here, from fellow Swede Tove Lo to The Weeknd and Carly Rae Jepsen – the latter being no surprise, given former Vampire Weekend bassist, Rostam Batmanglij has worked as a producer for both artists.
so sad so sexy isn’t Lykke Li’s magnum opus, but that doesn’t make it a bad album. There are moments that shine and demonstrate why she has been a stand-out name in indie-pop for as long as she has been, but there are more hesitant moments where something different is sought but it doesn’t quite work, where more traditional pop features come into play but don’t work well in the context of the record. As a result, the album doesn’t flow as cohesively as it ought to and some tracks – ‘Bad Woman’ in particular – just feel as though they were slotted into bulk up the tracklist.
At the same time, some of Lykke Li’s best moments to date are on this album with ‘Deep End’, ‘So Sad So Sexy’ and ‘Utopia’ standing out triumphantly among the more lacklustre tracks. But it still feels like a step down from 2014’s I Never Learn, an album that still feels as relevant and as fresh as it did upon release. While so sad so sexy feels like the natural follow-up in its natural progression from the highly emotional devastation of a break-up to the more apathetic – almost bored – voice we hear here, but it just feels like some of spark that had been so present before has been lost along the way.
The title track and its predecessor ‘Sex Money Feelings Die’ are redeeming moments for the album which otherwise risks becoming forgettable. Both tracks feel like Lykke Li at her strongest, with the title track showcasing a hip-hop influenced beat and her classic style of forthright lyricism: “I was only lying when I looked in your eyes / now I’m lying with you one last time”. It feels like all the genres Lykke Li’s ever touched upon were thrown into a pot here and still came out well despite the contrasting flavours. ‘Sex Money Feelings Die’ is reminiscent of earlier works like ‘I’m Good, I’m Gone’ and the lo-fi R&B sound of artists like The Weeknd. It stands out as one of the album’s only tracks with staying power in the charts if it were to be released as a single. Coupling these tracks together on the tracklist was a smart move as they cast a shadow over the weaker bulk of the record.
Overall, while the album has strong moments, the moments that let it down stand out so awkwardly that they’re difficult to avoid. ‘Two Nights’ is a good example of this – beginning sparsely and quietly, you’re led to believe this is a type of hypnotic mantra, an early interlude into the album akin to her 2008 track ‘Melodies & Desires’. Instead, the song abruptly introduces a rap feature by Aminé, where he rhymes Lykke with ‘Dicky’, and it completely changes the tone of the song, and not for the better. It is just jarring and unnecessary. Similarly ill-fitting is ‘Jaguars In The Air’. Its noughties-pop inspired sound is abrupt in an album that is mostly sparse, lo-fi and R&B influenced. Here, Lykke Li doesn’t sound like any version of herself that we’ve ever heard before and it feels heavily inspired by pop artists like Carly Rae Jepsen. It’s not strictly bad but is precariously placed and far removed from the more subdued approach to pop that we’ve come to expect from her in the past 10 years..
This isn’t an album to ignore. Despite its downfalls it is still objectively good pop music. It’s just not Lykke Li at her best. Wounded Rhymes and I Never Learn’s critical acclaim was always going to be difficult to follow up, and chances were taken here that didn’t quite work. Nonetheless the tracks that do the heavy-lifting here make up for the weaker majority. It’s just about enough to make it worth it. Aoife O’Donoghue