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A couple weeks ago, British post-dubstep piano crooner James Blake took to social media to respond to a Pitchfork track review that brushed off his latest song as just another “sad boy” entry into his catalog. In the post, Blake took umbrage to the term “sad boy,” saying “I’ve always found that expression unhealthy and problematic when used to describe men just openly talking about their feelings.” And regardless of whether his statement is valid or trying to earn sympathy points to undercut criticism, the point does stand that “sadness” is often used in a pejorative sense in our society, with small contingencies like Emo Night’s “Sad AF” sloganeering in an attempt to reclaim the term. Whether sadness is a sign of weakness or a badge of honor depends firmly on where you’re standing.
For Swedish indie pop star Lykke Li, no one has ever needed to tell her that sadness is cool, a flaw, or anything other than an intrinsic part of her being. It’s her blessing, her curse, her motherf*cking boyfriend. But even before she claimed to be sadness’ girl on the 2011 stunner “Sadness Is A Blessing,” it bubbled below the surface on her 2008 debut Youth Novels, a collection released by a 23-year-old still entrenched in the indie world and discovering that her fully-formed voice and perspective could work over a variety of sonic canvases. But where a song like “Tonight” would set the bar for torch songs to come, it was the deceptively peppy “Let It Fall” that would best establish her emotional interests. “I like it salt / I like it wet / Like my makeup in a mess / So I cry hard / Let it fall / And I won’t stop until my tears are all shed,” she sings over feathery production that begs the audience to dance with her. Even early on, sadness wasn’t something to dwell on in isolation. Like a graduation or a new job, it could be celebrated.
For the next couple of albums, she took pride in reinventing herself and following whatever interested her musically, intellectually, and emotionally. 2011’s Wounded Rhymes found her entering a pop-witch phase, cloaked in drapey black garb and delving further into heartbreakers for the dance floor. It was decidedly more grown-up for a singer whose voice always tilts toward youthful innocence, with lines like “I’m your prostitute, you’re gonna get some” bathing in the majesty of contrast.
In a recent interview with The Fader, Li explained that the album that would follow, 2014’s gorgeous and devastating I Never Learn, was born of out a desire to produce the unexpected. “Wounded Rhymes had so much energy and touring that album, I felt like people wanted to me to jump up and down,” she said. “After that I was like, for the next album [2014’s I Never Learn], I just want to sit down on a f*cking chair and just sing.” The resulting collection was her third stellar effort in a row, full with Phil Spector-esque orchestration and lyrics that delved head first into a dark pool of heartbreak. The album is the personification of catharsis, but with the caveat that dying is a prerequisite for rebirth.