By the time Swedish chanteuse Lykke Li entered the studio to make her first album, she'd spent half her life fantasizing about it. The music that emerged from those recording sessions, Youth Novels, retains the gauziness of her adolescent reveries. It's a 45-minute dream sequence composed of longing looks, dissolved kisses, and sneaky feelings. But buried somewhere in the mix — among the cooing and crying — is a document of the 22-year-old singer's real-life romantic trials.
Youth Novels is less a collection of songs than it is a map of one woman's lovelorn imagination. Li's lyrics construct roads leading back to the singer's loneliness. But she avoids a strictly confessional songwriter's bathos. Li lays down broad boulevards of emotion ("Oh thunder in my heart/These razors cutting sharp/And leaves me with an ever bleeding scar," she deadpans in "Hanging High") which often fork into winding, less imposing side streets (in "Let it Fall," she makes a doleful yet witty case for crying).
Li's sentimental education began a little over three years ago when she moved from Stockholm to New York. There she braved the tortuous romantic entanglement that lends Youth Novels its lyrical focus. Though she refuses to go into details ("I would never give him the honor of knowing he was my muse," she told Spin), there are clues strewn throughout her songs indicating the relationship never moved beyond the ogling phase.
When Li landed in New York in 2005, she wasn't singularly focused on love, however. She was also living out her adolescent dreams of pop stardom, snaring gigs by donning heavy mascara and stiletto heels, passing herself off to club owners as a famous Swedish diva. After her visa expired, Li returned to Sweden with refined musical chops and an impressive New York resume (which she would embellish, nonetheless). Months of persistent self-promotion finally won the attention of Bjorn Yttling, of the Swedish indie-pop group Peter Bjorn and John. Li recorded Youth Novels with Yttling in Stockholm and New York between his band's tours.
The pair's sonic game plan electronically defaced a panoply of acoustic instruments (Spanish guitars, marimbas, woodwinds, and anything else lying around the room) while retaining their natural warmth. The result is a record whose shape depends upon the level of attention you give it: A casual listen produces a moody electronic pop album, while closer scrutiny reveals a rococo sprawl of noise. Eccentric electro jams like "I'm Good. I'm Gone." and "Complaint Department" continue to toe the line barely separating confession and confection. But the most satisfying moments are the extremes: "My Love" oscillates wildly between light-samba verses and howling torch-song choruses; "Time Flies" is a ballad so frail one expects the piano to collapse beneath the singer's breath.
But whatever the backdrop, the album is defined by Li's voice. Despite seeming waifish in her lithe frame and cherubic face, something ethereal takes over when she lets out the exuberant, unaffected singing that defines Youth Novels. It's as if Li is uncorking her inner world into ours.