The Best Albums of 2014, #4

band014. Lykke Li, I Never Learn (LL Recordings)

It’s been rewarding watching Lykke Li evolve as an artist over the past seven years. In early 2008, when “Little Bit” was a minor indie hit over here and her debut album Youth Novels had charted in the top five in Scandinavian countries, she brought fresh, youthful energy to pop melodrama. When I saw her play in Oslo that February, I was transfixed by this quirky little pixie that seemed shy yet at the same time performed like a dynamo. She’s not the most prolific singer-songwriter, but as the years have gone by her music has matured a great deal, and even more, it’s darkened plenty. So much so that you can hear a strong gothic element creeping into her confessional-style songwriting, the pop element that made Youth Novels so effervescent pushed to the back burner as she began exploring the more introspective, meditative side of her art more and more.

Popular music has a rich history of “dark night of the soul” albums, from Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, to Beck’s Sea Change, and Lykke Li’s third album is a very worthy addition to that beautifully miserable canon. Precipitated – as it often is – by a devastating break-up, Lykke Li holed up, did a little soul-searching, teamed up with longtime collaborator Björn Yttling, and emerged with I Never Learn, a stark, concise album that despite its moments of shimmering beauty, could not be bleaker and hopeless thematically. At first I wasn’t overly impressed with so many stark ballads, especially coming on the heels of the rich Wounded Rhymes, but ever so slowly this concise, 35-minute album worked its way into my heart. First the singles, then the deep cuts, and by the time I saw her perform a spellbinding set in a cozy, dark enclave of a tree-lined park in Montreal, my faith in this extraordinary artist was fully restored. What glorious hopelessness is on display on I Never Learn, too. “No Rest For the Wicked”, “Just Like a Dream”, and “Never Gonna Love Again” channel the melodrama of classic Phil Spector, while the Greg Kurstin-produced “Gunshot” whittles all that pain down to one devastating line: “And the shot goes through my head and back.” The deeper cuts are just as powerful too: the gut wrenching “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone”, “Heart of Steel”, and “Sleep Alone” are quieter, but pack just as big a wallop. Turn out the lights, listen, and wallow in some of the loveliest, saddest music of 2014.