Culture / Music

What Lykke Li’s ‘I Never Learn’ says about the music industry, concert culture

On May 6, Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li released her third album, I Never Learn, after teasing audiences for months with various videos, sound clips, and singles. The effort was her shortest yet most ambitious record, as she drew upon extreme heartbreak and sadness for its material.

The nine-track collection features the singles, “No Rest For The Wicked” and “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone”. After the album’s release, Li launched into a short and intimate tour, spanning from London to Los Angeles. But behind all of this is an interesting inside to the music industry and musicians themselves, prompting questions about image, profit, and personal space.

Li’s two previous records, Youth Novels and Wounded Rhymes, featured songs varying from upbeat pop all the way to the somber side of the spectrum. With Youth Novels, there was “Little Bit” and “Dance, Dance, Dance”. Li even exhibited an experimental side with the synth-y introduction to “I’m Good, I’m Gone”.

Wounded Rhymes was a bit more dance centered, with strong drum rhythms and layered, anthemic vocals. Songs like “Youth Knows No Pain” and “Jerome” invited listeners to a kind of ironic dance party, while Li sang about deeper topics than usual for pop music.

But I Never Learn steers a new path. In an article titled “Better Off Alone” written by Pitchfork’s Carrie Battan, Li says, “This album is about the shame and the guilt and the sadness and the regret you can experience after leaving someone.” She considers the album closer, “Sleeping Alone”, to be the records “happy song.” That’s saying something, as the song’s first verse is How can I get used to/ How can I forget you/ Will I get used to/ Sleeping alone. 

Even more so, Li announces in the interview that the songs that were more pop-central on her previous albums were somewhat accidental and not “her.” Battan notes that Li’s two previous albums hinted at her potential to be a pop star, while I Never Learn is a clear statement that she doesn’t want to explore that potential. .

When Li came to Seattle to perform a session for KEXP, she decided to stop by Sonic Boom, a local record store, to perform a handful of songs for free. Assuming there was going to be a line around the block for her performance, I got there early, hoping to snag a spot.

I arrived to see Li’s band setting up, not a crowd in sight, and the singer across the street sitting at a coffee table outside. When it came time for the performance, the store began to fill up. One of the employees came onto the stage and told the audience, “Since this is an intimate show, we ask that you please don’t take photos. There will be a signing afterwards. Please welcome, Lykke Li.”

While the crowd clapped, there were visibly slouched shoulders and whispered complaints about the singer’s request for no photography. People were outwardly upset that Li would rather they not electronic document her intimate, free show. That says so much about music consumerism! You could go so far as to assume that people are attending shows, free shows nonetheless, solely to document the event on their phones. Personally, I wouldn’t be in the mood for photos if, nightly, I was standing before crowds of people, singing about the deepest heartache I’d ever felt. People were also audibly disappointed that she didn’t play more upbeat songs because they wanted to “dance.” If the industry existed solely because people wanted to dance, the world might as well end.

Li’s effort to put forth an honest and emotive record and the response to her action is a testament to the music industry. She wrote nine songs that she can speak through, and, in my experience, people are disappointed that they can’t “dance.”

There are many counter-arguments that could be made here, like the fact that stereotypically, well-received albums are adventures in audio, with both upbeat and slow pieces. But ultimately, if an artist wants to grieve by producing and album, he or she should be able to without criticism of their sadness.

After the show, people lined up to have records and CDs signed by Li. Various people thanked her for the show and directed their smiles at her. I was shocked when a woman in front of me asked to take a picture with her. Li replied, “Actually, I would appreciated it if you didn’t, it was a small show and I’m not feeling too well.” The woman shortly thanked Li and walked away. I stepped forward, graciously thanking her for writing “such a beautiful record” and telling her that it really meant a lot to me. She looked at me for a second, and then said quietly, “Thank you so much.”

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See for yourself:
Watch Lykke Li perform on KEXP

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