Essential New Music: Lykke Li’s “Youth Novels”

As if her name wasn’t an obvious clue, Lykke Li is Scandanavian through and through. Her debut could be mistaken for a covers album where Stina Nordenstam and Hanne Hukkelberg sink their teeth into songs by bubblegum favorites Robyn and Annie, with Peter Bjorn And John as the backing band. Björn Yttling, in fact, produced and co-wrote Youth Novels, bringing his love of reverb-heavy pop classicism, populated by slightly off-kilter juxtapositions of glockenspiel, pianos, lo-fi synths, primitive drum machines and rich backing vocals.

“Dance Dance Dance” is driven by a basic acoustic-guitar rhythm, a chugging horn section, minimal percussion and found sounds, with a female chorus shipped in from Soweto. “Let It Fall” is a bouncy, early-’80s pop ditty about being reduced to a blubbering mess of tears. Elsewhere, Li indulges her melancholy on both sides of the music/lyrics divide. For all the inventive whimsy of the arrangements, however, there’s no mistaking the slight lyrical content. “I think I’m a little bit in love with you/But only if you’re a little bit in love with me,” she sings in a too-cutesy girlish voice, playing the part of a passive-aggressive narcissist. The arrangements easily mask any youthful shortcomings by keeping the listener guessing, alternating between ’50s revivalism, Euro folk pop and electro. Li is ready to be all things to all people, and as she says, “If you want to complain, I’m not the complaint department.” []

—Michael Barclay