Returning to the album game three years after the charmingly curious Youth Novels, Lykke Li Zachrisson has grown up and moved away a little bit from the rather timid, waifish, precocious young woman of her debut. She hasn't entirely let go of her girlish sweetness, and she certainly hasn't lost her way with a melodic hook, but she's largely outgrown the more cloyingly precious, occasionally clumsy tendencies that sometimes plagued her debut, and her singing voice, while still appealingly personable and distinctive, has gotten considerably more forceful. Indeed, despite its vulnerable title, Wounded Rhymes practically oozes confidence, barreling out of the gate with the swaggering, rabble-rousing "Youth Knows No Pain," all in-the-red handclaps, hip-shaking drums and tambourines, and downright nasty, psych-damaged organ, as Li sneeringly exhorts us to "C'mon honey, blow yourself to pieces." Even with a roughly even ratio of ballads to rockers, and a fair complement of woebegone lyrics, there's a similar sense of toughness throughout. But it's a fleshy, lived-in toughness, equally unabashed about declarations of love (the deeply romantic "I Follow Rivers," the powerfully passionate "Love out of Lust," and the borderline obsessive "Jerome"), and provocations like the fierce, sexually aggressive "Get Some." Musically, Li and returning producer/co-writer Bjorn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn and John) use the bare-bones, rhythmically oriented textures of Youth Novels (and of his band's 2009 album Living Thing) as a springboard, keeping starkly intimate vocals, clattering drums, and all manner of oddball percussion sounds at the forefront (check "Rivers"' fetchingly wonky, detuned xylophone riff), but they flesh things out somewhat with guitars and organs, frequently multiplying Li's voice to create an ad hoc backup choir, resulting in a considerably fuller-sounding effort that still feels grittily immediate and raw. Rhymes also reveals, and revels in, Li's fondness for '50s and '60s rock and pop, hearkening equally to classic girl group sounds and harder-edged garage rock. In fact, she and Yttling pull out just about every time-worn trick in the throwback pop playbook: doo wop arpeggios and "shoo-wop shoo-wop" backups on the gentle "Unrequited Love," a thunderous Bo Diddley beat and tremulous spy/surf guitar on "Get Some," seedy "96 Tears"-derived organ on "Rich Kid Blues," and "Be My Baby" drums, and Spector-ian orchestra bells on the big ballad centerpiece "Sadness Is a Blessing." But despite that plethora of knowing musical allusions, this is by no means a stale, cut-and-dried retro affair. On the contrary: it's an inspired, rugged, smart, emotive, coolly modern piece of indie pop, and an improvement on Lykke Li's debut in just about every respect.
Wounded Rhymes Review
by K. Ross Hoffman