I haven’t quite figured out what’s responsible for the preponderance of amazingly talented young divas sprouting from Scandinavia. Perhaps they’re magic sprites, maybe there’s a government-sponsored program, or water from an enchanted spring—I’m still trying to work that out. What I do know is that with pop princesses like Annie and Robyn, and singer/songwriters like El Perro del Mar and Frida Hyvönen, Europe’s Scandinavian region has a lot of musically impressive ladies they can be proud to call their own. And let’s also not forget that there are several well-established Norwegian and Swedish indie pop gentlemen such as Jens Lekman, Sondre Lerche and Peter Björn and John. It’s enough to make Americans, Brits and Canadians downright jealous.
Now suppose you were to take a new, young Swedish singer with a sweet and seductive chirp, and pair her up with one of the aforementioned indie rockers from her home country to produce and co-write her debut album. Without even going into specifics, that already sounds like a winner, but it just so happens that fresh-faced singer Lykke Li, with a bit of assistance Björn Yttling (of Peter Björn and John), has created one of the most exciting debut records of the year (not to mention one with a really cool, Bauhaus-style cover). With a sound that cross-breeds the sassy dance pop of Robyn and Yttling’s band’s own brand of earnest, yet sleek and accessible indie pop, Lykke Li brings something subtle, but no less fresh sounding to the table with Youth Novels.
Singles “Little Bit” and “I’m Good I’m Gone” have been in circulation Stateside, in the few months between Youth Novels‘ European release and its American street date. The former is somewhat bare, with a three-note bassline, simple guitar riff and spare beat driving the melody beneath Li’s breathy coo of “I think that I’m a little bit…a little bit in love with you.” In a way, it’s actually quite similar to “Young Folks,” though “I’m Good I’m Gone” is more amplified and commanding, stomping and clapping over an unshakable piano riff. Li asserts her sassy self, showing off an impressive range and an attitude to match, closing the chorus with the kiss-off “you’ll be calling but I won’t be at the phone.”
Yttling’s production style is expert, but unobtrusive. As he has done in his work with his own band and with the Shout Out Louds, there is a noticeable layer of reverb in each song, though by no means at My Morning Jacket levels. Still, Li is the star here and her presence, even at her most coy, is one that’s hard to deny. Leadoff track (not counting intro “Melodies and Desires”) “Dance, Dance, Dance” is breezy and fun, with Li repeating the title refrain, and small surprises like bits of saxophone sprinkled toward the end. “Let It Fall” is propelled by the simplest of beats and organ hooks, with Li’s own ode to falling tears being the soulful focal point. When the arrangements are stepped up a bit, as on the jazzy ballad “My,” everything falls into place beautifully. Li’s voice is backed by a soaring choir (which also includes Peter Morén), strings and horns, in stark contrast to the simpler pop numbers, and thoroughly gorgeous. Closer “Window Blues” is another curveball, sounding more like Tom Waits or a Kurt Weill composition, but with eerie, melancholy backing vocals sending off the album in a surprisingly dark tone. Before you get there, however, you have to get through “Breaking It Up,” which brings more handclaps, more upbeat choir vocals, and hooks, glorious, hooks; it’s one damn great pop song.
Lykke Li is still young, but the songs she has crafted on Youth Novels show talent beyond her years. It’s telling that Li was frustrated at age 20 that she hadn’t released an album yet. She’s not only accomplished that here, but she’s done so on her own label, with an amazing set of songs, and a great team to lend a hand. It’s still early in her career, but I get the feeling we’ll have quite a bit to look forward to before she turns 30.
Video: “I’m Good, I’m Gone”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.