What I really expected was for Wounded Rhymes to follow the usual second album taming process. Sure, I was ready to take it to my heart, hungry as I was for more, but with wistful backward glances at Lykke Li’s remarkable debut, Youth Novels. It’s the way these things work.If you need an example, look to The Unthanks, whose unpolished mixture of strangeness and simplicity (plus those gorgeous voices, as unpop and earthily creamy as you like) made their first album, The Bairns, a masterpiece (I'm conveniently ignoring their real first album, 2005's Cruel Sister, mainly because I haven't heard it and I'm pretending no-one else has either, so the ascent from obscurity schtick I'm playing with here doesn't yet apply), but who were renamed, tidied up, fiddled about with and produced into a more straightforward, Mercury Prize-friendly proposition (2010's Here's The Tender Coming) next time round. It was almost as if someone with a suit/beard combo had sat down and transcribed faithfully what the Northumberland clog-dancing folkies sounded like, but hadn’t the gumption or imagination to articulate their utter, fantastic wildness. It’s not that Here's The Tender Coming doesn’t have perfectly lovely moments, and of course it has the larynxes of Becky and Rachel, but it’s not stumbling over the moors any more with burrs in its hair and the tears streaming; it’s dressed-up and pretty and presentable to the grandparents.
A similar thing happened to Laura Marling’s second offering (2010's I Speak Because I Can), after her first album of songs of startling, youthful originality (2008's Alas I Cannot Swim). It’s something to do with the naivety of the newbie that can make a first album that special; some kind of raw awkwardness that, prehaps inevitably, dissipates with record deals and budgets, age and status. (It may or may not be a coincidence that the three examples I’ve picked are by women. And, of course, I’m sure that anyone could find me three good counter-examples of second albums which have made the progression from generic to remarkable. But.)
So Youth Novels had all of that big-eyed gawky freshness, it tottered about on shaky foal legs, and was just absolutely humming with the alarmingly mercurial self-confidence of a teenager. I loved it at first listen. Especially for the way it constantly teetered on the edge of being wrong. Some of Li’s peculiarities of phrasing, her lispy infantile vocals, her whispered lines, were almost odd enough to be painful to listen to (see Bjork for someone who’s made a career for herself out of such tics, also Joanna Newsom, or CocoRosie, a band whose vocal eccentricity is well past the point of unconventional, is teeth-grating but marvellously so): but that almost-wrongness, of course, was precisely what made it brilliant. Youth Novels throbbed with inventiveness, with its minimal backing, brassy synths, primal percussion, blips and bloops and abrasiveness and the scuffed sweetness and unexpected turns of Li’s grainy vocal lines; it was an extraordinary piece of work.
It’s no surprise then that Wounded Rhymes is not as extraordinary as Youth Novels. But it is wonderful. Triumphant. And bigger. Much, much bigger. Of course it’s more polished. Of course it’s more produced. The kitchen-sink clattering of Youth Novels has been replaced by enormous thunderous drums, multi-tracked heavenly choirs, and melodies that come in great trembling reverberations. There’s ‘Jerome’, the huge melancholic ballad of a thousand broken hearts, with its rolling timpani, bereft wails and handclaps. There’s the pounding, prowling, un-PC booty call of ‘Get Some’, its leers and shrieks and wanton promises (“I’m your prostitute; you gon’ get some”) capturing the dirty of the album’s ferocious sex n’ love n’ obsession theme. Or the closer, ‘Silent My Song’, with its booming echo-chambers the size of subterranean caverns and mournfulness to fill the lot of them, howling out in witness to the murderousness of love.
Of course, there’s defiance in there too: this singer has not been muted, quite the opposite, and the pain of love and the delirium of sex instead of stifling her has filled these songs to bursting. The whispering has gone; Li belts out the tunes with the full-throated retro verve of an Amy or an Adele, and if it’s not with their virtuosity, then that doesn’t matter one jot: there’s always the drums to beat up a storm beneath her. Where Youth Novels seemed at times to have been beamed in from an alternative universe, Wounded Rhymes dances its way into an appropriately exalted place in this world with sure-footed references to Pop Past, all shoo-wops and rock’n’roll riffs. She seems to be fulfilling in spades the promise of sheer pop stardom that she oozed from the stage when I saw her play a couple of years ago. There was quite a disjunct between the small, dark venue, more used to being thumped about on by middling level rock outfits, and the fantastical whirling figure throwing shapes up on the stage, who was quite obviously already a fucking STAR.
My guess is that as the acclaim for Laura Marling and The Unthanks’ less extraordinary sophomore releases far surpassed that for their debuts, this album will be widely seen as Lykke Li’s moment; polished, produced and grown-up is where the wider world gets its kicks after all, however much more strange and marvellous the first hatchings might seem. This time, because what Li has produced has made such a success of the inevitable, has ramped it up and maxed it out so much that a positive virtue is made of the necessity of maturation, I think that it’s worth applauding the process. Maybe this time there will be a fitting correlation between the levels of attention heaped on a less unconventional second album and its quality. And perhaps kohl-eyed, birdlike Swedish girls with armfuls of bangles and wild stares can be the megastars they should be in this world.
I hope so.
(First published on Collapse Board)