Lykke Li loves to suffer. For her first album, 2008's Youth Novels, the 28-year-old Swede wrote an entire song about how much she loves crying. And not just regular tears — big, salty, puffy-eyed, smeared-mascara tears. For her 2011 follow-up, Wounded Rhymes, she wrote a song comparing sadness to a boyfriend she couldn't bear to leave — that's how ambivalent she was about her own happiness. Li made the type of record you put on to wallow in your bad mood, not get out of it.
So when she announced the third installment in her dreamy indie pop trilogy about twentysomething life, I Never Learn, it seemed like Li was doubling down on her speciality following an existential crisis in Los Angeles and a painful breakup that "really killed" her. That’s mostly true: I Never Learn, out now, is Li's bleakest album to date, a nine-song collection of raw, elegant tunes whose titles (“Sleeping Alone,” “Never Gonna Love Again,” “Heart of Steel”) reveal just how terrible a time the young singer-songwriter was having.
Li’s voice is as enchanting as ever, but I Never Learn just misses the high bar set by its predecessors. It can’t be the noticeably sparser arrangements — though I Never Learn lacks the booming percussion of Wounded Rhymes or the bright production quirks of Youth Novels, Li has never been one to depend on whatever happens in the studio. (Li’s longtime collaborator Bjørn Yttling, of Peter Bjorn and John fame, returns for the majority of production duties.) In fact, she excels at writing songs that work just as well stripped down as they do dressed up. Her weapons of choice on I Never Learn — acoustic guitars and piano chords that sound like they were hammered out in love-scorned fury — are appropriate for her most vulnerable album to date; she can barely get the words out on the final chorus of “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone.”
It can’t be the subject matter, either. On her debut, Li alternated between youthful naiveté and coming-of-age confidence as she tiptoed around pain, while Wounded Rhymes explored turning that pain into power when it all fell apart. I Never Learn, by contrast, has a less complicated relationship with sadness — straight heartbreak, no chaser — and its best material lets it rip with the drama. “Gunshot” compares a toxic relationship to a fatal head injury over snare drums meant to sound like fired bullets (not a new trick by any means, but producer Greg Kurstin deserves props for doing so without being too distracting). On “No Rest for the Wicked,” her whimperings about loneliness are endearingly pathetic. By design, I Never Learn is not supposed to be fun.
But the simplest and most likely answer to why I Never Learn is at times underwhelming is probably the least interesting: The songs as a whole just aren't her best work to date; the hooks aren’t as crisp and the melodies aren’t as memorable. That’s fine — it happens to even the best musicians — but it’s almost cause for concern considering Li’s stated goal for the album was to showcase her songwriting abilities, not her pop star potential (as if, in 2014, the two were somehow mutually exclusive). If this is the album she feels she has to write to gain greater credibility, that's unfortunate; if this is just a weaker link in an artist's otherwise impressive catalog, that’s understandable. The good news is that, if I Never Learn’s title is any indication, she always runs back to her old ways.