More melodramatic than melancholic, Lykke Li’s fourth album, So Sad So Sexy, continues her thematic focus on heartache, albeit through a more generic, impersonal lens. In the four years since the release of her gloomy breakup album I Never Learn, the Swedish singer-songwriter has mourned the death of her mother and celebrated the birth of a son, but Li’s emotive spectrum here exists solely within the confines of turbulent romantic relationships, painting corresponding moments of outsized anxiety, desperation, and fleeting optimism in overly broad strokes.
Li eschews the mixture of lush orchestral arrangements and acoustic ballads found throughout I Never Learn and 2011’s Wounded Rhymes and instead delves into more synth-pop, hip-hop, and R&B influences. Gone are her typically hazy, reverb-laden vocals, and though she uses multi-tracked harmonies here, her voice in often less processed. And yet Li’s songwriting—she worked with nearly a dozen co-writers across 10 tracks—comes off as prefabricated, built upon interchangeably vague platitudes about love on the rocks rather than the more lived-in expressions of misery and pain that defined her earlier work. Primarily juxtaposing ethereal atmospherics and skittering trap beats, So Sad So Sexy is a sleek, homogenous pop-oriented album that feels both conceptually half-formed and technically fussed-over.
When the album does explore more experimental textures, it’s with mixed results. On “Hard Rain,” Li’s airy coo is paired with deep, pitch-shifted backing vocals from Rostam, who also produced the track, intertwining their vocals in a compelling contrast of light and dark. But on “Jaguars in the Air,” the psychedelic electronic effects come off contrived and gimmicky and are unable to distract from the song’s incessant lyrical repetition, which is a problem that resurfaces elsewhere on the album. Droning synths give way to another trap beat on “Sex Money Feelings Die,” a track that feels as though Li is simply checking off boxes from a list of debauched party-anthem tropes and morning-after regrets, as she offers such vacuous sentiments as “Drink up, drink up/I’m so fucked up all I want is you.” On “Deep End,” she belabors a metaphor for immersing oneself in the thrill of a new love affair through heavy-handed references to salty kisses and the burn of chlorine, and at times she resorts to simply chanting the words “swimming pool.”
Li indulges in extremes of either agony or ecstasy throughout So Sad So Sexy. She clings to tainted love on the sparsely arranged “Bad Woman” and begs for a shred of dignity on “Last Piece,” then blissfully envisions a perfect relationship that “could shine brighter than glitter” on “Utopia.” “Better Alone” presents a more nuanced take on relationships, as she summons the self-powering fortitude to leave an emotionally aloof partner, but that’s a rare understated moment of clarity on an album more prone to angsty hyperbole.