It is perhaps quaint to ask, in this age of elevator-pitched career etiologies, but does anyone know anything about Lykke Li? Considering how carefully she’s defined herself musically, it’s odd that Li hasn’t taken steps to foster discussion around a public persona. Odd, but hardly unfortunate, mind you. Emphasizing the art over the artist might not be the easiest or quickest way to attract media attention, but considering the buzz she has attracted during the lead-up to the release of Wounded Rhymes, it appears that the lack of high-concept synopsis hasn’t diminished her crossover potential. That the North American distribution of the album is being handled by Atlantic Records only seems to confirm that notion.
And while there are plenty of other fair-haired Scandinavian ingénues struggling to claim their portions of a shrinking commercial landscape, few are doing it with as much subtle idiosyncrasy as Lykke Li. It’s startling to think that Wounded Rhymes is only her sophomore release. Banish the word ‘slump’ from this conversation; Rhymes is smarter and more mature than 2008’s Youth Novels in nearly every conceivable way. More grounded than her debut, it shows Li moving away from electro-pop, toning down her indulgent tendencies and committing to a soulful throwback sound. It’s easy to imagine what a singer like Amy Winehouse could do with a song like “Get Some”; built around swinging, jazzy percussion, it comes on as strong as its title would imply, but Li wisely refrains from vamping up her vocals and takes the song to unexpected places — “I’m your prostitute/ And you gon’ get some” isn’t exactly the most coy or clever hook on which to hang a song, but this confrontational attitude is complicated by the breathy mid-song breakdown, less reminiscent of sex work than it is of chain-gang spirituals.
One can ascribe a certain shock value to the concept of a Swedish singer drawing so heavily from African American musical vernacular, but any feelings of offense are mitigated by Li’s sincerity. Perhaps not since Sinead O’Connor, in the early 1990s, has a white European translated R&B idioms so guilelessly. Lykke Li draws on a diverse range of African American musical traditions, from the righteous — or maybe just Righteous Brotherly — doo-wop melodies on “Unrequited Love,” to the girl-group lamentations of “Jerome,” to the gospel harmonies and curious lyrical phrasing of “Silent My Soul,” to the distinctly diva-ish histrionics at the climax of “Sadness Is a Blessing.” The familiar drumbeat on “Sadness” might first bring The Ronettes to mind, but Li’s strained vocals seem to imply that homage to The Supremes is just as likely intended. Even the lyrics of “Love Out of Lust” — which sounds more like “Maps” than Motown — seem to recall “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Prevalent though they may be, these heavy hints of influence never overwhelm Wounded Rhymes, never prevent it from being less than a vibrant, eloquent expression of mood, of feeling. Lykke Li might not have the most recognizable face or the most distinctive bio, but she’s sharpened her sound and style so keenly that the refined quality of her melancholy is enough to distinguish her. This is soul music, sometimes in form, but always in content; mournful and inspirational in equal measure, Wounded Rhymes more than earns that categorization.