Lykke Li’s followup to her astounding career-peak I Never Learn struggles to move forward from the charms of that release. Where I Never Learn built on her folk and more orchestral leanings, layering what felt like walls of cadences of bright guitars and choir vocals, handmade reverb, into pocket symphonies of heartwrenching melancholic folk tunes, so sexy so sad falls unfortunately into the modernist trap of slightly minimal electronic beats, hip-hop inspired, with more minimally affected solo vocals. It’s not a bad idea for a new record, not by any stretch, and when facing the notion of following up a melancholic pop masterpiece like I Never Learn, itself a giant step over Wounded Rhymes, it feels like the correct path. The issue is not that it’s a failure of a record (it’s not), but that it doesn’t quite get there.
This is a comparable problem to Zola Jesus’ record Taiga. While their sonic palettes were different, Lykke Li erring more on folk and Zola Jesus more on industrial, they both had a strong melancholic pop throughline in their work, a tenderhearted nocturnalist emotionalism that acted as the center to their records. It was the adult version of the kinds of emo records that teens (and the emotionally stunted) tend to, vast and sensuous seas of darkling sound to act both as solace and affirmation in those low periods. Taiga proved contentious for Zola Jesus, a turn to more explicitly synth-pop sonic aesthetics, foregrounding a component of her music that before had been muddled behind avant-gardism. And while the songs were excellent, her fans did not come along for the ride so much; had it been released by someone else, it may have fared better, but it wasn’t, and so Zola Jesus’ followup Okovi was more of a sonic retreat than a progression, even though it on its own it was a forward-thinking industrial record.
So too on so sad so sexy, an album of individual good songs, ones that want to arc toward the same kind of adult emotionalism but find themselves falling short. Carly Rae Jepsen and Lorde may be the current high-water mark for this kind of record, and in that light this record shows its weakness; lyrically, hooks like “So sexy, so sad” from the title track or “Sex, money, feelings, die” from the similarly titled track feel a bit too slight and cliched to hang one’s hat on. Likewise, the production of Li’s vocals suddenly feels less tender, cracked and human and more the kind of liquid polish of contemporary pop at its most soulless. The songs are perforated with moments of the gentle Peter Gabriel-esque cavern of sound, letting the song hang on an elliptic line, reverb like the answerless echo of a mind thinking to itself alone, but then a weak line will crop up and the song will collapse again. There are enough interesting production ideas, enough light avant-garde touches and finessed drum machine hits to make things move. But it feels uneven, properly conceptualized but improperly executed.
Perhaps it’s a matter of taste; so sad so sexy is a turn to the more obvious, the more bare, songs no longer swirling, darting, dancing nude in rubato behind obscuring veils of muslin and guitars like lace, instead laid below bright light to be observed and taken as they are. Her tendency to let songs end of ringing tensions, chords unresolved, bristling with a gentle enough unclosed dissonance to mirror the unanswerable ache of the protagonist’s pain, now suddenly feels like pop that isn’t yet bold enough to be anthemic; not yet rich enough to be engulfing, no longer tender enough to sit as close to unaccompanied as she’s played in her career. It’s not necessarily a misstep to have shot in this direction, and seeing the success other performers like her have had in the space it’s not impossible to see refinement coming in the future. If this review seems negative, it’s only because of the high bar set by her previous record; in any other circumstance, so sad so sexy would be fine.