When Lykke Li released her last album I Never Learn four years ago she described it as the ending of a trilogy. All three of her albums referenced lost love, heartbreak and melancholy, and were set to that very Scandinavian of things, blissfully sad electropop. Like her fellow Swede Robyn, Li was the artist you could dance to with tears in your eyes.
Since 2014, she’s relocated to Los Angeles and had a baby with Uptown Funk co-writer and frequent Kanye West collaborator Jeff Bhasker. So, for this next phase of her career, she’s bound to start writing contended odes to family life, right?
So Sad So Sexy is, as the title suggests, a very Lykke Li kind of album. It’s more obviously influenced by hip-hop and there’s a mindbogglingly large case of guest names – ex Vampire Weekender Rostam and dubstep pioneer Skrillex, as well as long-term collaborator Malay and her partner Bhasker. Yet despite the trap beats and auto-tuned vocals, there’s nothing on So Sad So Sexy that won’t appeal to anyone who has found something to love in her back catalogue over the last decade.
Of course, it helps that the kind of ‘sad pop’ which Li helped to popularise has only become more prevelant in recent years. She was writing songs bathed in sorrowfulness back when Lana Del Rey and Lorde were mere striplings, and so tracks like Sex Money Feelings Die where she sings “drink up, I’m so fucked up, all I want is you” feel more like a natural progression than a jarring jump on a bandwagon.
It does mean that the irresistible bounce of songs like Get Some or the hypnotic hook of Little Bit is missing – and while the slightly sleazy, hazy atmosphere of most of this album is one to submerge yourself in, a couple of more upbeat tracks may have worked wonders. Yet Li’s pop sensibility is still intact, as the impossibly catchy chorus of Jaguars In The Air or the gorgeously swell of the title track prove.
And just as she sang back on Wounded Rhymes, sadness is still her boyfriend – from the opening Hard Rain (all processed multi-tracked vocals and minimal beats) up to the self-explanatory break-up song Better Alone, most of these songs show how well Li can document heartbreak. The standout Two Nights has a beautifully haunting hook of “two nights in a row, where’d you go, I’ve been smoking” and the self-lacerating Bad Woman (“I’m a bad woman but I’m still your woman”) will end up on many a playlist simply tagged ‘wallowing’.
It all feels like a a natural progression from Li’s earlier work rather than the much vaunted ‘reboot’ that had been trailed. In fact, it’s the closing track Utopia that, lyrically at least, looks in a new direction – an ode to a stable relationship and a child, with lines like “You won’t bow out, you won’t run out, when all my shit’s out”. Sadness may remain her true love, but when she flirts with other emotions, the effect can still be magical.