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Better Than: Never loving again, I guess?
Lykke Li is one of those strange situations that happens now and again these days: someone who’s talked about as a pop singer, is sort of presented as such, but in reality is a bit weirder, a bit too idiosyncratic to fully fit that mold. She, of course, has some indelible hooks out there, and who wouldn’t want to hear “I Follow Rivers” on a Saturday night at Radio City Music Hall? But it’s not exactly a pop show where you’re going to go dance your weekend night away. This is especially true now, as Li tours behind her most recent record, I Never Learn, perhaps the best and most thoroughly heartbroken break-up album of the year. These are all songs about mistakes made, love lost, and a conflicted take on the past that runs the spectrum from yearning to regret to resolve. I mean, that’s how you spend all of your Saturday nights, too, right?
When it comes to Li’s status as more of a pop artist, one thing that leaves no doubt is the amount of production in her live set. It’s a simple stage set up, but far more involved than the bulk of hot indie artists you’d see down at Bowery Ballroom or over at Music Hall of Williamsburg. (Again, after all, we were at Radio City.) Li took the stage in black, flared pants and shiny black jacket with oversized shoulders, which she later swapped for a long coat/cloak situation. She sometimes moves around with all the planned deliberateness of an animated character, like she too thinks she has to talk and walk like a pop singer but doesn’t quite believe it. (She herself commented on her lack of dancing ability mid-set, in a plea to the audience to lead the way for her.) At other moments, she seemed more in her element, moving like a conjuror of some sort, twisting one arm in the air while her hair blew in an unseen and unheard wind. Throughout, Li’s landscape was one of little golden lights that ran along the daises where her band members stood, and black drapes that hung in narrow, almost column-like shapes. The overall image was like a few disparate plumes of smoke emanating from the embers of a wreckage, with one shadowy figure trying to make her way through them.
And, well, that makes a lot of sense. Li herself has called I Never Learn an album of power ballads (the latest in a long line of music criticism anathema to be reclaimed in the 21st century free-for-all, I suppose). Before “Never Gonna Love Again,” she–no joke–told the audience, “Raise your iPhones and lighters and let’s have a power ballad moment.” I’m fairly certain this is the first time I’ve ever heard an artist actually ask for everyone to get their glowing, disembodied iPhone screens up in the dark air of a concert, aside from U2. But, hey, owning the power ballad thing is what makes I Never Learn work, and what makes these songs as heart-rending as they are.
The “power” half of that moniker is also what made this show work, especially if you might not be psyched about spending a weekend night hearing a bunch of slow-burn sad songs where the burn is barely a flicker. There were some spare, meditative moments, but working with only an hour and 10 minute set, Li knew how to balance it out with the bigger moments and fan favorites. After the intro of “I Never Learn,” “Sadness Is a Blessing” and its “Be My Baby”-esque beat thumped to life and felt like the true start of the show. “Gunshot” and “I Follow Rivers” were placed together as a powerful one-two, the only odd part being that “I Follow Rivers” arrived relatively early in the show compared to what you’d expect. And after the aforementioned swell of “Never Gonna Love Again,” Li went into sultry swamp-soul mode with “Youth Knows No Pain” and “Get Some” at the end of the set. (There was a brief tease of the intro to Kanye’s “Send It Up” in between.)
The instrumentation of Li’s studio tracks can vary across an album or between albums, and the live setup manages to replicate it all in a sort of combined middle ground–there were copious amounts of synth melodies up front, and plenty of lap steel guitar, adding a distant pang in the backdrop of the music, another color of pain underneath the already powerfully distraught material from I Never Learn. Older tracks like “Jerome” were altered just a touch to fit in with the cathartic build of the newer material–its vibe melody seemed to be reproduced by synths, and it moved with more emphasis. “Dance, Dance, Dance” has also become a far more satisfying thing than it ever was in its studio incarnation. Gone are the too-precious pinched vocals of Li’s earlier performance, replaced by her current, more lustrous approach. It, too, was outfitted with a more powerful build than in the past, adopting a percussive pulse (including Li herself occasionally walking over to the drumkit and smashing a cymbal) that actually makes you want to obey the chorus’ invocation of its title.
The surprise highlight was when Li played Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” “It’s a good song to slow dance to,” she teased, before sardonically adding “You know it?” a few lines in. This is a song a lot of artists play on total autopilot, but Li’s version was a worthy interpretation, fitting in perfectly with the I Never Learn material, its more lustful tone another wrinkle in the lost love narrative. Notably, she repeated the “Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife…” part, the whole power of which relies on how it happens once in Springsteen’s version, and reconfigured it so that it was the de facto chorus in her performance. It all built to more of a climax than most artists allow themselves when playing it, organ drones and drums thundering through Radio City.
Though it’s a cover, Li’s take on “I’m On Fire” summed up why these kinds of shows and albums are so evocative. Everything she did right with I Never Learn, she also bottled up into that little three or four minute cover. These might be inherently sad songs, but she’s up there belting them out, and each synth burst or gunshot of a snare hit are so perfectly placed, the little endorphin hits that feel like the percolations of newfound resolve. If you’ve recently gone through a break up, going to see Li play these songs might be the best idea, or the worst idea. Though it had all the cleanliness and professionalism of a pop show, Li is still bleeding up on that stage. As always, that’s the kind of art that’s cathartic, the kind that reminds you we all have to get through this shit together.
Critical Bias: An artist doing a strong cover of “I’m On Fire” is a good way to earn my blessing.
Overheard: “I’ve had popcorn for dinner everyday this week”– a woman I later asked to marry me.
Random Notebook Dump: The Rolling Stones’ “Heaven” played over the sound system a few minutes before Li came out. I haven’t been able to escape this song recently, and that’s a a great problem to have.
I Never Learn
Sadness is a Blessing
Just Like a Dream
No Rest for the Wicked
Dance, Dance, Dance
I’m on Fire (Bruce Springsteen cover)
I Follow Rivers
Never Gonna Love Again
Youth Knows No Pain
Du Ar Den Ende (Lill Lindfors cover)
Heart of Steel