There are moments on I Never Learn, Lykke Li’s latest album, that can feel like you are being aurally flayed. It’s a collection of songs that sound so raw and painful it feels like a layer of flesh being torn away leaving exposed the bloodied sinew. They are nocturnal oaths whispered to the self on tear stained pillows, fragile diary entries scribbled in deep sadness, not venue cramming, air-punching sing-a-longs that ignite an audience. To reveal this vulnerability in a live setting night after night on tour is a special form of musical madness that can destroy even the most focused of artists.
This could explain the air of trepidation in Vicar Street as Lykke appears on the pitch black stage shrouded in a dramatic cape-type affair looking like Stevie Nicks on downers, strips of shadowy silk billowing around her as she mournfully croons the tragic title track. Moody opener dispensed with, the band kicks into life pounding through the Scandi- Spector thump of ‘Sadness is a Blessing’ as Li ties herself up in a variety of origami shapes. Recent single ‘No Rest for the Wicked’ comes alive with flashes of light pulsing through the darkness like lightening striking through the stormy weather of the doomed coupling Li evokes. Her voice straining and cracking as she cries out ‘Lonely –I-I’m so alone now’ the picture of the fallen siren. Pulling out a particularly apt cover version of Drake’s heart-crushing ode to unrequited love ‘Hold On We’re Going Home’ she spins it into a Nico–toned irresistible slice of gloom-pop that sounds like it was crafted for her half-sob vocals.
These songs are maybe the soundtrack of a broken soul but onstage Lykke Li does not exactly fulfil the ideal of the delicate, wounded artist, instead the cathartic nature of the songs seem to fuel her physical performance like a visceral emotional rage. No standing still in the shadows for her, she vaults around the stage, thrashing cymbals with her sleeves and with raised fists commands the audience to ‘COME ON!!’ several times momentarily turning into a Swedish Richard Ashcroft.
The thunderous break down of mega-hit ‘I Follow Rivers’ sees her cast a silhouette with a tambourine in one hand, drumstick in the other manically conducting the crowd into a frenzy as the familiar Knife-style percussion takes over. Later, managing to relax into the night she dedicates songs to ‘all the heartbroken’ before jokily referring to ‘Never Gonna Love Again’ as a ‘power-ballad’, which is rewarded with a sea of raised lighters and phones. The kohl-eyed one cracks a grin introducing some wry-humour amid the sober lyrics about ‘lonely highways’ and the chilly terrain of fraught relationships.
The night reaches its fevered, volcanic apex with the screens filling up in blood red for a riotous version of ‘Rich Kids Blues’ with the keyboard riff morphing into a creepy demon love child of Clinic and DJ Shadow coiled over furious Mo Tucker rhythms creating a much more menacing version than the meeker original. This is followed by the K.O sucker-punch of Wounded Rhymes whip-cracker ‘Get Some’ with its trashy beat and smouldering lyrics inducing the crowd into throwing some frankly illegal shapes for a Sunday night, in praise of the shape-shifting chanteuse spiralling dizzyingly in front of them. Thanking the audience for helping her through the tough task of this particular tour she disappears back into the inky night alone, tragic troubadour turned triumphant hero dancing through the darkness.
Lykke Li photographed for State by Kieran Frost