Lykke Li Youth Novels

[LL; 2008]

Styles: adolescently bipolar memoirist Swede-pop
Others: Peter Björn and John, Lasse Mârtén, El Perro Del Mar, Robyn

Youth Novels seems, upon a superficial reading, to be a curious moniker for 22-year-old Swedish singer/songwriter Lykke Li’s debut album. It subsumes no eccentric, memorable Dickensian characters, no grand, Greek tragedy-styled catharsis, and no lucid, Shakespearean denouement. Instead, Youth Novels is built around a single ‘bipolar’ adolescent — all misplaced, grandiose passions (think: Oscar Wao, if he were female and European) — and a familiar emotion-riddled teenage narrative of heart-wrenching longing, without the therapeutic payoff. In fact, this is a ‘youth novel’ at its most basic, familiar, and ubiquitous: an openhearted teenage girl’s diary.

This diary motif is established immediately. On the first track, Li discards traditional singing, opting instead for a memoir-ish spoken word delivery. During this opening chapter, she introduces the poignant themes that will inspirit the remainder of the album: ‘melodies,’ minimalist and organic; and ‘desires,’ to find love and happiness. Significantly, within her desires there is a disparate polarity: no spectrum, just contrasting boundaries. At times, Li wants to joyously “Dance, Dance, Dance” to those revitalizing melodies, but just as often she allows herself the reprieve to “Let It Fall” -- “it” being her tears, which flow often as love continuously escapes her fragile grasp. At these edges, Li displays an introspective poetic touch uncommon among most adolescent diarists. On “Little Bit,” she movingly admits, “And for you I keep my legs apart/ And forget about my tainted heart,” pithily remonstrating herself while still fully aware that she is more than just “a little bit in love.” By splaying her heart’s contents onto Youth Novel’s melodic canvass, Lykke Li fashions her first album into a voyeuristic wet dream, as all memorable diaries should be.

This memoirist aesthetic is continually reaffirmed by Li’s diverse, eccentric range of singing styles. Apart from the spoken word found on “Melodies & Desires” and “The Trumpet In My Head,” there are her childish coos on “Little Bit,” her staccato, robotic delivery on “Complaint Department,” and most memorably her throaty, on-verge-of-tears histrionics on the excellent, El Perro del Mar-esque “Time Flies.” These vocal acrobatics are her attempt to give her pensive narratives additional layers of disposition, flair, and temperament; they serve as the figurative creases and wrinkles of her diary pages and the metaphoric tears on her pillow.

Although her varied singing will surely infuriate some listeners, it adds important dynamics to otherwise understated production. In the place of the immense electronic cacophony archetypical of much Euro-pop, producers Björn Yttling (of Peter Björn and John) and Lasse Mârtén (Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”) adroitly craft sparse, organic instrumentals. Around an omnipresent, reverbed bass, there are marginalized instruments — spattering of woodblock, moody trumpets, minimalist piano, and guitar — that are counterbalanced by dashes of non-instruments, most notably handclaps. Out of this frugal hodgepodge, we are treated to the funky reggae of “Let It Fall”; the sinister, jaunty “I’m Good, I’m Gone,” which builds to the album’s most infectious chorus: “If you say I aim too high from down below/ Well, say you’re not 'cause when I’m gone/ You’ll be callin’ but I won’t be at the phone”; and the hypnotic “Hanging High,” which utilizes an airy harpsichord to offset somber vocals and a plodding bassline to great affect. More importantly, these organic instrumentals transfix the listener in reality enhancing the memoirist aesthetic.

Youth Novels serves as an entertaining, but ultimately inadequate introduction to Lykke Li. Staying too strictly within the diary motif, her lyrics never stray outside the pop song themes of love and desire, and the production never reaches beyond the minimal, organic sonic template towards more progressive sounds. Although her debut lacks the lyrical depth and dynamic production that characterize the best works of this genre, there are enough hints at greatness to fully expect Li’s future work to sound more like that of a vibrant, mature artist than of a merely lovelorn teenager.

Most Read