Lykke Li - I Never Learn | Album Review | By Volume

I wanna piss on the walls of your house! Against Me! - Black Me Out

Lykke Li

I Never Learn

A captivating break-up record that breathes new life into love.

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Author: on May 19, 2014
LL / Atlantic Records

I Never Learn is touted as a break-up record, but I wonder. I’ve certainly never heard a break-up record quite like this one. They’re usually quieter than this, sometimes louder, and never as lush. However they sound, a break-up record usually continues the bad vibes. I’ve always wondered why listeners want sad songs for sad times, and while it’s comforting to hear someone go through the same shit as us – and expel that same shit through the great comfort food that is music – I think relating to these songs runs deeper than that. A good break-up record usually feels extremely lived, as much as the events that led to it were. They’re recorded in lonely bedrooms for one, hold the production values; other times, they’re the kind of defiant fuck-yous that get told with scorched guitars. Both those kind of records feel held to a place, feet on the ground and hands reaching for chord shapes. It’s not necessarily a break-up thing, that music has a sense of place, but it is a break-up thing that this sense of place is so annoying. Sad bedroom pop isn’t for daydreaming, and raucous fuck-you songs aren’t often wish-fulfilment. It’s hard to get out of this world when you’re remembering the reasons you’re mad at it.

Artists often talk about having to make records about heartbreak, and in the best break-up records, I think that necessity is often heard. Some of the process stays behind; a Tim Kasher record has a narrative that you pick up on in the aftermath, in the stage directions scribbled into the liner notes, or in the subtitles you forget exist (not Domestica, but Cursive’s Domestica). Marvin Gaye’s Hear, My Dear is another break-up record I’ve always found accidentally-on-purpose conceptual, its confessional nature sorted into songs and instrumentals and “reprises” – you can hear the story being spun. Kasher and Gaye make heartbreak sound pretty prog-rock, if you ask me, but I think the same intentional spirit exists in the sparsest, most supposedly authentic break-up songs: to be a folk rock kind of vulnerable, to take the guitar to your chest like it’s an extension of your heart, seems like a way of absorbing your sorrow into song.

There is, of course, no formula to a break-up record – if there was, Rumours would fall somewhere between American Weekend and The Meadowlands – but I find it fascinating how often the break-up comes alive in the structure of the music, or in the lack of it. There’s a reason one of the best songs The Wrens ever wrote is called “13 Months in 6 Minutes”, as if Charles Bissell was trying to cram heartbreak into a pop song the way you try to pack up a sleeping bag – you know it’s supposed to fit in here, this pain, even if you have to push and shove and swear ‘til you’re red in the face. Relationships and pop songs are thought of as a good fit, but I like to think the relationship runs into the song a little, lording over the melody as more than just a story, and making it a little hard to pack up.

I Never Learn doesn’t sound related to break-up all that much, in this sense. Love is at the forefront, a sort of opening remark, but the music is something else completely. Li’s lyrics are certainly typical of the break-up genre: at points she swears off love forever, at others she’s more internal, more hooked on that self-loathing hype (I mean … it’s called I Never Learn). It’s a record that evokes a lot of sympathy with very few new words: its loneliness feels transparent and obvious, but not clichéd or indulgent – Li singing “Baby, can you hear the rain fall?” is a familiar trope landing just once more. Lyrically, a lot of I Never Learn does feel familiar, like a break-up record that winks with its audience, saying “we’re suckers for this, aren’t we?”.

Musically, though, it’s hard to grasp at. It doesn’t make a pop song sound like a lived in heartbreak, or like Li is trying to tie together her emotionally distraught loose ends into a summative piece of art. Quite frankly, it just doesn’t sound like heartbreak; it formally states it and then flies off the fucking handle. Instead, I Never Learn sounds magical, with Li’s arena-folk aesthetic doused in a daydreamer’s psychedelia, that’s not out of this world, but certainly in the realms of fantasy. She captures a similar lushness in these songs to The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream, an equally enrapturing record written about lover’s remorse, but set in what feel like hallucinations that ignore the pain completely. Li’s escapism is similar, a sort of lore she invents out of huge orchestral bluster and wiry percussive snaps. The choruses to these songs sound like someone bursting out of a forest’s tree-line, going from a grand scene to something just a little bit grander: “Silver Line” sounds huge and open, and the way its verse makes way for something even bigger, with little more than a light percussive brush, is astounding. What break-up? I Never Learn sounds like a new day in a massive world.

For the most part, I Never Learn makes all of its melodies sound like opportunities, each anthemic development more important than its sorrowful lyrical counterpart. The piano notes that dominate “No Rest For The Wicked” show that Li is pulled more to making a record of flourishes and live-show bait than dwelling on what spurned the song on. Maybe this is what poptimism actually sounds like: a song as a force against the personal battles that make them happen. Even the record’s title track, which opens with remorse and hasty guitar strums, gives the record the bombastic overture it deserves; it’s comprised of layered vocals and strings that rush down the spine, and its chorus – a sweet choral hum, distanced by smart production – becomes an outro. That moment is indicative of Li’s contentedness to stray from the break-up rule book, and to give into a good dream.

There’s one moment on I Never Learn that scales back on the arrangements and the bluster: the coarse and acoustic “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone”. For a moment, it takes you back to what you might expect of a break-up song: it has small details, like when Li strums too hard and you can hear her thrashing against the strings, or those fret slides she makes, or the way her voice is more acidic than usual. Those details feel instinctively related to what break-up should do to a song, and to the place you’d expect it to leave you: on your own, with only your own voice and the guitar you found lying about your bedset. In this moment, I Never Learn sounds like one of those records a musician needs to make, for their own good. But it’s already that, in its own, wonderful way: it’s the place Li needed to escape to. What makes it so special is that it’s also the place she chose to go.

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