The second album by this acclaimed Swedish songstress largely jettisons the appealing if skewed pop sensibility of her debut, along with most of that album's electronic underpinnings, for a prickly, nebulously political collection of songwriterly art-pop, with the emphasis firmly on the "art." While Love and Youth wasn't exactly light listening, it could be reasonably mentioned somewhat in the same breath as Wilson's friends and collaborators (and compatriots) Robyn and the Knife; Hardships! though, plods a portentous path far from the Scandinavian synth pop superhighway, evoking instead the idiosyncratic likes of Kate Bush and Tori Amos. Wilson's curious, powerfully theatrical soprano has earthy hints of gospel and soul, while the piano-led chamber arrangements offer occasional flashes of levity, particularly in the percussion department, though the album's menagerie of handclaps and xylophones can just as easily sound sinister as cheerful. But most of the interest here (human or otherwise) derives from the lyrics, which deal explicitly with domesticity and motherhood, forming a loose song cycle/concept album that addresses those topics primarily through themes of struggle, escape, and disillusionment. Wilson combines narrative details redolent of rural poverty (strong-willed horses, threadbare socks, burnt soup and potatoes) with military, maritime, natural, and nursery-rhyme imagery to create vivid, uneasy juxtapositions, not unlike the rifle she wields with such impassive poise on the album's cover. The dinner-time escalation in "Pass Me the Salt" is typical: "Come on now eat your food/cartridges, fried and stewed/this table has become a combat zone." The title song likewise compares the trials of motherhood to the stuff of bloody battlefields, bemoaning the unheralded heroism involved in an implacable, oddly antagonistic tone that reduces a well-reasoned feminist viewpoint to bleak, heartless logic. Wilson adopts a similarly chilly, queasily pragmatic, almost resentful view of family relationships throughout, with partners and children alike: when she wails, by way of a lullaby, "I wanna leave you baby/but our veins are entwined," you get the sense she really does want to leave her infant. The final two songs represent something of a thaw, musically as well as lyrically (one features a loose-limbed sax solo); tellingly, they're the only ones save for the surreal memoiristic opener "The Path" ("I wanted to be born, so I crawled out of my mother") to contain the word "love." Love does not come easily in a world filled with hardships. And Hardships! is not an easy affair on any level.
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AllMusic Review by K. Ross Hoffman