Right before Lykke Li’s so sad so sexy album came out, I started reading What’s Love (or Care, Intimacy, Warmth, Affection) Got to Do with It?. The 2017 e-flux journal is a collection of entries that touch on love in the current sociopolitical climate written by a variety of authors. One of the pieces that really grabbed my attention was Brian Kuan Wood’s “Is It Love”. The essay touches on the concept of love as a means of exchange and capital market as well as the burden of emotional labor. “Today it has become disturbingly easy to confuse stress and exhaustion with love,” he writes. “This can be attributed to the sheer amount of energies being exchanged that prey upon emotional responses.”
Lykke Li’s record covers many of the same elements that are presented in this book. In the four year gap between so sad so sexy and I Never Learn, the world has changed drastically for the Swedish singer. During the hiatus, she co-launched a Mezcal brand, formed a supergroup called LIV, and became a mother before her own passed away. Lykke Li’s music has always embodied different aspects of sadness in relation to love, but there’s a darker energy on this album that wasn’t present before.
so sad so sexy shows Lykke Li throwing caution to the wind as she dives head (and heart) first into new territory. This stage of her sonic evolution is interesting, as she collaborates with a mixture of artists that have been occupying their own lanes like Skrillex, Rostam, Jeff Bhasker, T-Minus, and Emile Haynie. Portland rapper Aminé is the only feature on the record and masterfully blends in with the album’s aesthetic. The production on every track is flawless, so Lykke Li is able to rise to the surface at her most vulnerable like an open wound ready to heal.
“hard rain” formally introduces us to Lykke Li’s brave, new world as the album opener. The Rostam-produced track contextualizes the strains of trying to fix a relationship that is beyond repair and flirts with elements of synth pop and post-dubstep. The intro sounds like a siren going off as Lykke Li repeats the line “If you like the feeling of a hard rain falling/ I have a seafull, I can give you an ocean.” It rings like a warning to the masses of the incoming flood of emotions.
Every day, we are exposed to an overwhelming amount of chaos and destruction – whether that’s in relation to the outside world or in our own personal lives. It’s a burden that is often too heavy to carry when focused on survival, and the best defense mechanism for that is to become numb and desensitized, as demonstrated in the song’s outro: “If there’s no feeling, no meaning, say something/ Did I mean something to you? You show nothing,” she sings. “Was it real?/ Did I block it?/ It’s my fault we lost it/ And look at us now, us is holding us hostage.”
It’s very clear that Lykke Li’s purpose is not to suppress emotions, but to provide a space for those that are drowning in them. This mission continues with “deep end”, one of the many trap-influenced tracks on the record that could be categorized as an electro-R&B banger. The intensity builds up when the beats trickle out, setting listeners up for a profound confession in the bridge: “I’m in it, I’m in it/ I was only gonna touch ya, now I’m in it/ I’m in it, swimming in it/ I wasn’t gonna love you now/ I’m so fucking deep in it.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Lykke Li has dipped into the rap and hip-hop pool – she previously collaborated with Drake on the track “Little Bit” off his 2009 album So Far Gone and included A$AP Rocky on a remix of her 2014 single “No Rest for the Wicked”. The Aminé-assisted slow-burner “two nights” captures the toxic paranoia that taints your mind when a partner has been unfaithful and therefore broken your trust.
“jaguars in the air” falls a little flat, but songs like “sex money feelings die” are slipped in to lift the mood from crying in the club to dancing the pain away. so sad so sexy makes you wet in so many ways that you never expected. “Baby, don’t you cry,” Lykke Li chants in the catchy chorus. The irony isn’t lost on the listener, but it serves as a refresher that provides a quick break from the puddle of messy feelings (individuals that possess emotional depth lead exhausting lives). It’s moments like these that remind us that women are warriors and self-empowerment is a weapon that men continue to perceive as a threat.
“last piece” is one of the most raw songs on the record, with Lykke Li’s vocals stripped back as she narrates the universal desire to remain intact after losing a piece of yourself within an expired relationship. “So let me keep the last piece of my heart/ before you tear it all apart,” she begs with a sense of urgency that stings upon delivery every time. It’s the type of breakup ballad that gently pushes you out of the wallowing phase as your dignity slowly becomes within reach again.
The experience of heartbreak is painful enough to handle on its own, but simultaneously feeling like a fragment of the person you once were merely extends the entire recovery process. This act of giving yourself to someone else as an exchange for love that Lykke Li speaks of is similar to the following passage from Wood’s essay: “Love’s joy is not to be found in fulfillment, but in recognition: even though I can never return what was taken from you, I may be the only person alive who knows what it is.”
On the title track, Lykke Li makes beautiful metaphors about “cryin’ diamonds like a river inside” and not having the guts to break her aching heart. It instantly brought back memories of the early 2010s, when the overly objectified manic pixie dream girl was swiftly replaced by the “sad girl” on Tumblr. Of course, this new identity was immediately deemed controversial because people argued that it glorified disorders like depression and anxiety. But that’s not what this bop is about – Lykke Li is merely articulating the complexity of self-awareness.
There are also moments of clarity where Lykke Li makes a case for embracing solitude and isolation like on “better alone”, a song about feeling lonely within a relationship. She owns up to more of her personal struggles and insecurities on “bad woman”, which starts off like a ballad and transforms into a fighting anthem. “utopia” closes the album with a clean finish as Lykke Li gives us a glimpse into her mindset as a mother with an abundance of hopes and dreams for her child.
In the essay “Dear Navigator”, Hu Fang writes that “our feelings are necessarily connected to everything that happens in the universe, only the reactions carried by those ripples spread at different frequencies.” He adds, “Separated by a fixed distance, there are certain things to feel sad about, and others to which I’m even more sensitive.” Perhaps Lykke Li was trying to bring attention to this distinction in her latest work while experimenting with new dimensions of sound. Most artists come off as overdramatic when their material revolves around the highs and lows of love, but Lykke Li maintains an honest perspective as she presents an iridescent exhibit of the multifaceted layers of intimacy.