Looking like Vito Corleone’s exhausted, widowed mother on the cover of her newest release, I Never Learn, Lykke Li has further cloaked herself in the mournful hues she donned on Wounded Rhymes, only now her once-raw emotion has faded into something far more tired and dusty. Still, the Swedish singer-songwriter’s third album is less about any particular emotional state than where she’s arrived artistically. Steeped in a shadowy, Southern-gothic pastiche lifted straight from Johnny Cash’s American series, I Never Learn finds Li completely turning her back on the glossy pop she was edging toward on previous albums.
The title track serves as a stark introduction to Li’s malaise, a slow, loosely strummed ballad that emphasizes dissonance through multiple, disparate overdubs of Li’s aloof vocals. It’s a hell of a way to start an album, with the singer sounding positively zombified by her brokenhearted misery. But these aren’t fresh wounds, and I Never Learn is rather anticlimactic in this regard: Residing somewhere between the fourth and fifth stages of grief, the album serves as the epitaph of a relationship that has long since dissolved, thus lacking any of the fiery, righteous anger that has defined the greatest breakup albums.
At the same time, pop music has become so self-congratulating in recent years that to suddenly hear genuine contrition out of a belt-it-out singer like Li is a bit of a novelty. The album’s crowning moment is the bleak piano confessional “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone,” where she desperately pleads with her ex to accept her faults, then catalogues each in cold, specific detail. The track is a lovely, anguished dirge, though like most of the album’s offerings, Li’s harrowing castigation of her own faults provides little in the way of a cathartic release. Indeed, the way I Never Learn plays out, there’s no catharsis to be had for Li, her lyrics suggesting she’s caught in a loop of never-ending torment no matter how much she tries to repent.
Sonically, the album is not so self-defeating: Even as the resigned artist seems to collapse under her lovelorn moans, there’s a triumphant strain in her production choices. The guitar and percussion in “Silverline” climb hopefully out of a dank morass of voices, while tracks like “Just Like a Dream” and “Gunshot” manage to reach anthemic heights with the use of strong drumlines and well-timed loud-soft dynamics. Though she’s largely eschewing Youth Novels’s bubbly synth-pop and Wounded Rhymes’s slick power ballads for simpler arrangements and derelict instrumentation, Li still manages to make the ramshackle music of I Never Learn sound grand and, perhaps more impressively, inject a kind of dark romanticism into her depictions of crippling separation.