Much has been written about the sonic change Lykke Li has made since her 2008 debut, Youth Novels. Where her first album was a set of quiet, unobtrusive love songs, Wounded Rhymes, her newest, is mostly raucous and rousing. Its backdrops are filled with romping shakers and toms, creating a sound that is primal, slinky and sexy, adjectives that few would have used to describe her work on Youth Novels. The interim between albums has yielded some significant image changes for Lykke as well. Her performances in support of Wounded Rhymes feature her in a black leather poncho with matching shorts and boots, her dark hair pulled back behind her head to look like a masculine crew cut. It would appear that Lykke’s transformation from shy songstress to boisterous vixen has been drastic, but organic. However, although Lykke may have made all the right moves in tweaking her appearance and her songs, something just doesn’t seem right to complete either picture. For however Lykke may try to extricate herself from the image of her first album, her vocal presence on Wounded Rhymes is still suited for the soft and calm, and, more often than not, her attempts to betray that are off-putting and awkward.
It’s unfortunate to say, because, basically, I am accusing Lykke Li of evolving as an artist. But, time and time again, when she moves out of her comfort zone, Wounded Rhymes comes off as just that: uncomfortable. The danceable toms and circus organ riff in first track, “Youth Knows No Pain,” provide excellent scenery for the image Li attempts to convey on the album. And it works right up until she takes the mic for the verses and chorus. When that occurs, though, her innocuous croon drags the song down more than if it were performed by a singer with a more dynamic voice. “I Follow Rivers” is a great song, Lykke notwithstanding, but it suffers from the same problems. Lykke’s accompaniment is convincing, but her voice doesn’t sell it past that vital last stretch. Much ink has been used up on the “I’m your prostitute / You gon’ get some” line in “Get Some,” but, when Lykke sings it, it sounds just about as evil as if the ETrade baby sang it.
The good news is that Wounded Rhymes is split evenly between the new and old Lykke. Where her sexuality may be forced in songs like “Rich Kids Blues,” her turns in quieter contexts are minimalist and sincere. In a song like “I Know Places,” she sounds more confident with just an acoustic guitar supporting her than all the maladroit posturing on Wounded Rhymes combined. When she evokes sadness as a lover in “Sadness in a Blessing,” it comes off as mature and heartbreaking, especially at the ending of the chorus, when Lykke concludes, “Sadness, I’m your girl.” These songs all deal with crushing amounts of disappointment and loneliness (“All my love is unrequited” goes one song’s chorus) and their brilliance in silence make the bloated songs of Wounded Rhymes sound more like overcompensation than fun.
In her song for the Twilight soundtrack, “Possibility,” Lykke Li embodied vulnerability with little more than a piano and some brooms, and, two years later, Wounded Rhymes proves that she can still pull off moments of such beauty. All the album’s quiet songs are excellent and the ones that strike a middle ground between that and the brashness of “Get Some” are good as well. Wounded Rhymes isn’t so much a misstep as a great album with a few songs that jump the gun. Lykke Li is one of those artists whose moderation suits them best, and, although I can respect the polarizing tracks of Wounded Rhymes, none of them appear without some unfortunate consequence.