Lykke Li has been in Stockholm almost nine months, her longest stay in years, and she’s dying to get out. She’s been working here on her second album with Bjorn Yttling, of Peter Bjorn and John, because he has a new baby and needs to stay put. Li’s apartment is a sparsely furnished one-room flat in the fashionable Södermalm district, its sole contents a bed, a small table with two chairs, a stereo, a mirror, a cowskin rug and an upright black piano. On top of the piano there are books by Paulo Coelho, Joan Didion and Leonard Cohen, a photo of her dad in India with long hair and a beard, and a random assortment of Polaroids from her promotional shoot the day before lean on a vinyl copy of Prince’s Lovesexy. In the photos she is dressed as several different characters: gold-chained tough, red-bobbed vixen and stern sophisticate, among others. Right now, though, she is pacing in a big black sweater and bare legs, working the phones to get a last minute costume made for the video of her first single. She will be shot on green screen and superimposed over kaleidoscopic images from an obscure B-movie about Amazon women spliced together by a Swedish video artist who normally specializes in political conspiracy films. Even in the current frenzied moments, it’s clear she is in complete control of everything she does and says, whether on record or in real life, and is determined to show everyone who she really is. Here’s what she is not: a Swedish pop star, a puppet, a victim, an innocent.
Lykke Li is not afraid to play these roles when they suit her, especially if it means subverting the image that most held of her after her debut album, Youth Novels. She was cute, blonde and coquettish, and at times, her songs sounded more like timid whispers than the expressions of a full-grown woman, probably because she hadn’t yet become one. In the four years since she recorded that album, Li has toured endlessly, made it through a crushing breakup that drove her to write new songs and learned, as Yttling says, that “the world cannot be conquered on a whisper.”
The new album, Wounded Rhymes, reflects her maturity in ways both obvious and not. She is really singing now, in a clear and emotive, honeyed purr, and her lyrics speak of tragic love, longing and disappointment. The music she has written with Yttling is tougher and more muscular, less about light melodies than forceful rhythm. She wanted it to sound like “Link Wray meets Ethiopiques meets The Shangri-Las,” raw and passionate, and it does. But beneath these outward transformations is a growing artistic force, a woman who seems capable of everything she puts her mind to, which could be anything. She may have outgrown Stockholm, but she was never really from here anyway, a child expat of two cult musician parents who decided to move the family to Portugal when she was only seven on a mission to live a freer existence and traveled frequently to seek enlightenment. The instability was tough on her, but Li is better off for the challenge.
There is a Swedish word that has no direct English translation, but roughly means that every person should strive toward the middle—never be too ambitious or too satisfied. It explains their appearance of cool perfection to the outside world, whether in regards to pop music or perfect style. Before a Swede can make it big, she must pass through a gauntlet that lifts her up while gently holding her down. Lykke Li sidestepped instead, and it’s her imperfections that make her exceptional. Over meatballs and lingonberries, she explained exactly how she got here.