Advance hype fueled by the Little Bit EP had Lykke Li pegged as the next in a growing string of cool-kid-approved pop stars to leak out from Sweden's endless supply, but Youth Novels doesn't entirely play out as expected, emphasizing neither Robyn's electronic dance-pop precision nor the affable strumming of Jens Lekman or Peter Björn and John (whose Björn Yttling handles production duties here, and also co-writes every track). Although it does bear some traces of those musicians, as well as El Perro Del Mar's earnest melancholia, the album is decidedly odder and harder to pin down, proffering an idiosyncratic, stripped-down vision of pop that foregrounds repetition and simplicity over familiarity or even melody (though rest assured, there is ample catchiness to be had here). The graceful symphonic layering of the beat-less, spoken-word opener "Melodies and Desires" starts things off on a deceptively lush note, but much of the album is about as instrumentally sparse as pop can get, often sounding as though it were cobbled together from a scrap yard of barely functioning instruments and non-instruments. The painfully introverted hip-shaker of "Dance Dance Dance" ("my hips they lie/cause in reality I'm shy shy shy") lilts atop an aptly minimalist groove consisting of nothing but two insistently bowed bass notes, some found-sounding percussion, and a brief sax solo, while even the assertive standout "I'm Good, I'm Gone" gets by on little more than hand claps, driving drums, a bit of vibraphone doubling, and a simple bass line pounded out on a piano's lower register.
These and the similarly skeletal arrangements that make up much of the album are deployed inventively enough that they rarely feel incomplete, but they're effective mainly because they keep the focus squarely on Lykke Li's understated yet captivating vocals. It's a daringly direct approach that emphasizes Li's marked emotionality (which runs the range from tenderness to bitterness), and allows songs to succeed -- or, rarely, flounder -- on their merits. When the songwriting ideas are strong (the aforementioned pair, the sparsely funky "Let It Fall" and especially the naggingly effective "Little Bit"), stripped-down arrangements and repetitive simplicity do nothing to stem their appeal, while "Hanging High" mostly plods and even the relative fullness of "My Love," with its strings and weirdly bleating group vocal, can't do much to make up for its dud chorus. A couple of curveballs come late in the running order -- the inexplicable Spanish guitar fantasia "This Trumpet In My Head," the jittery, mostly electronic kiss-off "Complaint Department" (which is cuter than it probably ought to be, but enjoyably snarky and faux-menacing nevertheless), and finally the resoundingly poppy "Breaking It Up," which is easily the album's biggest-sounding moment, complete with strings, chunky piano and exuberantly ramshackle group vocals. Brimming with ideas but understated, even tentative in executing them, and big on hooks but nervously intimate in presentation, Youth Novels is a curious, decidedly unorthodox but endearing record. Both youthful and novel -- Li was twenty-one upon its release, which may explain both her occasional goofy vocal affectations and the hesitant freshness of her sound -- it's hard to pigeonhole but refreshingly easy to enjoy.