Here are two things that contradict each other: wanting to be seen as a singer-songwriter rather than a pop artist; and getting hitmaker Greg Kurstin (Foster the People, Pink) to help produce your third album. Such is the paradox Sweden’s Lykke Li is contending with on I Never Learn, though truth is that paradox has presided over her whole career. Debut Youth Novels, which positioned Li as an electro-pop coquette, got her an Atlantic Records deal for follow-up Wounded Rhymes. But though the singles on those albums were synced far and wide – Twilight, Pretty Little Liars, this one time I was on a plane where “Little Bit” played during takeoff and landing, an endless loop of Li – mainstream success has mostly eluded her. (“I Follow Rivers” did chart – in Europe, thanks to a couple of Belgians: The Magician turning it into ’90s house, and Triggerfinger covering it execrably.)
Probably a factor: Li rejected the mainstream at every opportunity. With each subsequent album her voice got lower, throatier, her arrangements darker and more aloof. When her material excelled, as on Wounded Rhymes, it was because of these contradictions: the hooky but desire-flayed croak of “I Follow Rivers,” the entirety of “Get Some”: psych-Western strut, sexed-up lyrics, and Li treating it all like a staring contest between her and anyone listening.
Wounded Rhymes also had “Sadness Is a Blessing,” a reverb-soaked, richly emo parody of overblown breakup songs: “Sadness is my boyfriend/ Oh sadness, I’m your girl.” On I Never Learn, sadness isn’t a blessing or a parody, but a default state; the boyfriend’s moved in, with baggage. The pep is long gone. When I Never Learn aims for pop, it’s the hazy Shangri-Las variety; the melodies are Li’s lushest to date, but the smoke never clears around them. Every sound is swelled so much that they all sound flattened: multi-tracked vox sinking into muddled acoustics and strings, electronic crackles on “Silverline” and “Gunshot” that never get past unobtrusive, and reverb muffling the lot, as if everything was recorded in a rained-out warehouse.
There are some worthwhile cuts, at opposite ends of the pop-to-drear axis. “No Rest for the Wicked” and “Gunshot” sparkle as they sulk (until A$AP Rocky jumps on the “Wicked” remix; apparently sadness is also a crossover bid). Meanwhile, the lo-fi “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone,” though puzzling as a single, is startling and stark after so much overproduction (it’s oddly reminiscent of fellow Swede Stina Nordenstam’s similarly positioned album Dynamite). The rest is like the exhaustion after a sob session, too indistinct to even be indulgent. As a rendition of post-breakup inertia, it’s accurate enough. As an album – pop or otherwise – it’s baffling.