Before beginning work on her third album, I Never Learn, Lykke Li moved from her native Sweden to Los Angeles. Relocating made sense on more than one level: The 28-year-old singer-songwriter had earned a measured breakthrough in the States with songs like “I Follow Rivers” from her acclaimed 2012 LP Wounded Rhymes, and was also coming off the end of a serious long-term relationship. Trading Scandinavian winters for sunny California skies, conditions seemed ripe for Li’s long-forecasted leap into stardom. In theory, at least.
“California, especially for musicians and artists, offers some sort of solace, and it’s just an inspiring place. But it can also be scary because you are so isolated,” says Li over the phone, while stuck, ironically enough, in traffic. “You are really in touch and in tune with your pain and emotions. The light kind of shines on you and whatever ghost or secret or burden you have in you, it kind of brings it out.”
“What I wrote about is not what actually happened, it was more how I felt and the state of my heart,”
That’s a fitting description of the overall effect of I Never Learn, a post-breakup album that runs headlong into that light and bathes in all its stark, revealing power. Li, who co-produced the LP’s nine tracks alongside longtime collaborator Bjorn Yttling, has never shied from exposing her pathos on record; look no further than past songs like “Sadness Is A Blessing” and “Unrequited Love” for confirmation. Yet even on something as personal as I Never Learn, the songs are noticeably short of intimate details.
“What I wrote about is not what actually happened, it was more how I felt and the state of my heart,” she says. “It definitely takes me back to that raw emotional state, but it doesn’t necessarily take me back to the [other] person. It’s a very powerful thing to do, but of course sometimes I can get down because it takes me back to when I was so unbelievably sad.”
Instead, the album’s polished orchestration contrasts against Li’s poetic but straightforward lyrics; there’s no ambiguity when she sings “Never Going to Love Again.”
“There was one song in particular by Graham Nash, called ‘Simple Man,'” says Li, who also cites Harry Nilsson and Joni Mitchell as sources of inspiration. “There’s a line where he says: ‘I just want to hold you, but I don’t want to hold you down.’ That simplicity, everyone knows what that means and can relate to that feeling. That’s what I wanted to do—something so powerful, so simple, so direct.”
This isn’t Taylor Swift cheekily throwing shade at an ex, or Beyonce turning heartbreak into grand anthems of defiant self-affirmation. Li doesn’t attempt to control the narrative, the result of which isn’t always neat and uplifting, but entirely more courageous and affecting. As the final notes of the closing track, “I Sleep Alone,” drift into silence, the stakes feel higher than whether or not the album hits.
“[The album] was very necessary for me,” Li says. “The only reason why I did it is so one day I could move on.”