June 1, 2017 | by Amanda Scigaj
What makes a great breakup album? Is it screaming rage, perfect for a cathartic karaoke night fueled by mystery shots? Is a Chaka Khan anthem meant for a montage? Does it follow a narrative, with a denouement at the end? Is the answer just Beyoncé? For every mood of breakup there are albums that fit specific channels, and Lykke Li’s 2014 album I Never Learn fits precisely into that of agonizing devastation, both at relationships and the female self.
Li wrote the album after an anguishing breakup that resulted in her moving from her native Sweden to Los Angeles, where she began to write lyrics that would later become I Never Learn. What started as an outpouring of the many facets of her pain became the accidental bookend in a trilogy of albums, including 2007’s Youth Novels and 2011’s Wounded Rhymes. These records navigate the ups and downs of 20-something love, and also the exuberance, pain, and self-deprecation that comes with evolving into a woman during that time.
I Never Learn is unapologetic in its moroseness, but also maintains lush musicality that listeners have come to expect from the Nordic chanteuse. The opening track “I Never Learn” acts as the overture of the record, negating any of the hopefulness Li had in earlier albums. She repeats “I never learn,” a private self-flagellation mantra made public, with an opening acoustic guitar reminiscent of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”
The premiere single “No Rest for the Wicked” follows the opener with an upbeat confirmation of her discretions that is positively dance-worthy (as evidenced by the fact that it’s the most remixed track on the whole album). Li is not innocent in this relationship “disaster,” repeating “I had his heart / But I broke it every time” while lamenting “Lonely I, I’m so alone now.” A keen listener could argue that this is the bargaining portion of “I never learn”; feeling like she blew her chance, coupled with her own mortality and the realization that a love like this won’t come around again, she begs for another shot, for another heart to possibly repair or destroy.
Romantic heartache is indeed the first and foremost theme of I Never Learn, but it’s also the heartache of growing and changing as Li courses through her 20s. Anyone who’s ever been on the internet knows that there is a cottage industry in documenting these tumultuous years, from the laughable (millennial Top 10 First World woe lists) to far more resonating issues, like the changing nature of romantic relationships. It’s the hurt and frustration that many young adults feel when trying to carve out a balance of independence while also allowing themselves to be vulnerable with someone. The latter can be downright terrifying and is outlined in the opening lyrics to “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone”:
There's a heart I cannot hide There's a beat I can't deny When it sings, when it lies when it cheats, when it bribes There is a war inside my core I hear it fight, I hear it roar Go ahead, go ahead Lay your head where it burns
“Stone” is the most emotionally raw track on the album. The final lines of the second chorus are especially powerful, Li’s voice cracking with every breath as she pleads, “Even though it hurts, baby, scars / Love me when I fall / It breaks baby, it's torn baby, every storm / Love me like I'm not made of stone.”
“Heart of Steel” is the complementary track to “Stone,” where she asks her partner to love her despite being hardened. Backed with a Spectre-like wall of sound, “Heart of Steel” is a personal affirmation about opening up to the possibility of future romance and to stop pushing people away. It’s followed by the closing track “Sleeping Alone,” in which Li accepts that her lover (the relationship with whom she has chronicled over these three albums) has left, but she still “stares herself blind” looking for him and wondering how she will ever adjust to sleeping alone, while the nights and days stretch out endlessly. Li ends the album without a solution or suggestion, instead resigning herself to a personal sojourn dedicated to learning about herself and her own self-growth.
The shortest album Lykke Li has released to date, I Never Learn is comprised primarily of power ballads that encourage the listener to ruminate and ask what went wrong while managing to avoid treacly navel-gazing. It is a dark oeuvre that weaves between self-frustration and self-doubt and that exceedingly painful loss of a relationship that aches so much you gasp for air, vulnerability bemoaned.