Lykke Li’s ‘So Sad So Sexy’ Is a Spacious Soundscape of Melancholy Pop

Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li has a distinctive voice that has always made her stand out in pop music. Lazy comparisons to Fever Ray have been constantly leveled at her throughout her career, but are only accurate in terms of her Swedish accent. She’s more like ultra-lite Fever Ray, with an undeniably pop sound, accessible and immediate, but also a quirk and idiosyncrasy that make her sound fresh and enticing. Her epic 2011 hit “I Follow Rivers” introduced millions worldwide to her unique and infectious sound, and has fueled enthusiastic anticipation for her every release since. Her latest offering, “So Sad So Sexy” finds her updating her sonic palette, with a more synth-pop sound and plenty trap stylings. It’s a perfect example of an album thoughtfully titled, as it captures the feeling of being torn between amorous enrapture and destitute loneliness.  

Opener “Hard Rain” is possibly the album’s most thrilling moment, with production from Vampire Weekend’s Rostam that skewers the template just enough to make Li’s pop truly “pop.” There are lush choir swells cleverly panned, and Li sings in a breathy murmur, occasionally gasping between words, over a barebones, monotonous beat, giving a sultry, intimate feel. Over this minimal backdrop, the flourishes especially stand out. There’s a section with Li singing percussively, cramming syllables into condensed lines like rappers do, in tandem with a deep, pitched-down voice. Scattered snare rolls add an abstracted spacious rhythmic element, and the song takes on a futuristic hip-hop-sound, reminiscent of the duo 18+.

“Deep End” immediately takes a more front-and-center pop approach, with Li less hushed, and singing with more open-voice projection, over trap drums. The chorus vocal lines and harmonies recall ‘90s R&B hits by the likes of Destiny’s Child, although less blatantly bluesy, as if a few levels removed. Li’s unique, quirky vocal inflections add plenty character, as when she says “I’m in it.” There’s a playfulness to it that makes it delightfully one-of-a-kind. “Two Nights” is more ambient and reflective, with the percussion taking the back seat for most of the song, as Li sings, “Two nights in a row / Where’d you go?” One especially striking line is, “I left all the lights on, sleepin’ with no clothes on,” truly encapsulating the album title, “so sad so sexy.” Li has a talent for stringing little melodic snippets together that really stick in your mind. At one point, there’s a rap verse from Aminé, just a few bars long, and it detracts from the songs vibe, as it seems forced and tastelessly inserted arbitrarily. Skrillex is on production duties, but you’d never guess — no raging brostep here, just a fairly elegant, subdued pop song.

“Last Piece” is instantly catchy. It has an ‘80s synth pop slow dance vibe, fit for a dim-lit club with the crowd swooning and swaying in unison, exclaiming concerted “omg’s” when the poignant chorus hits. In the verses, there’s a certain four-syllable thing that Li does, which is ubiquitous in hip-hop right now, and serves to ground the track in the present moment despite the retro stylings. “Jaguars in the Air” is supremely catchy, but also arguably the album’s most irritating moment. The overbearing, repetitive chorus, with Li pronouncing “air” as “aye-ah” can become excruciating, in the same sort of nasal way as something by, say, Shakira or perhaps Alanis Morissette. On the other hand, the titular lyrics are undeniably cool, with all their nonsensical, visceral charm. The part where Li chimes in, “If you dream it, you can have it.” in an altered voice, adds a surreal element that helps the otherwise jarring chorus.

Next up is the curiously titled, “Sex Money Feelings Die.” Like the preceding track the chorus gets quite unnervingly repetitive. The line “When we wake up, break up” sheds some light on the idea behind the song: the often transient nature of feelings, lasting not much longer than sex or money. In this context, the repetitiveness, annoying as it might be, takes on a conceptual role, and hammers the point in effectively, conveying the feeling of clipped, monotonous, fleeting, confusing nonsense.

The titular track, “So Sad So Sexy” revisits the sonic space of “Last Piece,” with the ‘80s flavor seeping not only into the instrumentation but the chorus vocal melodies. It’s an odd thing how certain strings of notes fall in and out of vogue in certain decades. Identifying and capturing them is an easy way to tap into the collective consciousness and trigger an almost guaranteed emotional response. A this point, the album continues to reiterate sonic ideas already established, having established a particular feeling markedly. The closing track, “Utopia,” is an effective closer, with a dreamy, open arrangement, and the chorus line, “We could be utopia,” cloaked in reverb,” conveying the feeling of a distant dream.

It’s fitting that this song gives the album its title. “Sad” and “sexy” are apt descriptors of the sounds on display. Some people associate “sexiness” with happiness in music — think Miami bass, salsa, etc. Others find the garish, silly vapidness of such styles decidedly unsexy. Often, it takes at least a bit of melancholy, some emotional depth, to trigger an emotional response comparable in intensity to sexual attraction. Lykke Li’s music is far from macabre doom and gloom; it’s overall quite playful and lighthearted, a bit effervescent and giddy. But her plaintive melodies, the spaciousness of the music, and the lyrics about being caught between steamy romance and despairing estrangement, make “So Sad So Sexy” an album that perfectly captures an elusive feeling.

So Sad So Sexy” is available June 8 on Apple Music.