Lykke Li’s music is its best when it sits on a knife-edge balance of opposing elements: the self-awareness and self-seriousness of “Sadness is a Blessing”; the nihilism and longing of “Get Some” or “I Never Learn”. Some of her fourth album so sad so sexy successfully lines up these elements, but too often the balance slips, and her nihilist flexing runs hollow.
so sad so sexy follows a loose redemption narrative: struggling through a destructive relationship to the other side, learning some uncomfortable truths on the way. The song titles are styled in the all-lower-case trademark of sad girls on the internet, for whom Li - who once declared that "sadness is my boyfriend" - could act as a kind of foremother.
As signposted by the pre-release singles “hard rain” and “deep end”, the album is Li’s take on current pop/R&B trends, characterised by skittering beats, bass drops, and percussive vocals, and presided over by nine producers – including Skrillex, Rostam Batmanglij, and Drake/The Weeknd collaborator T-Minus. Like colours mixing together to make a muddy brown, this hefty roll call is sometimes to the album’s detriment: on too many tracks the usually distinctive Li sounds like an anonymous featured vocalist. “jaguars in the air” is gossamer-thin and throwaway. “sex money feelings die” is one-note, both musically and lyrically, rehashing The Weeknd’s old fucked-and-fucked-up refrains (sample lyric: “Drink up/Drink up/I’m so fucked up”), neither interesting or convincing. The well-worn beats and pitched-up backing vocals of “two nights” drag, while the feature rap by Aminé jars. The album’s repeated motif of smoking and cigarettes as an addiction metaphor feels try-hard rather than smart.
The best tracks are those that transpose the drama of Li’s best work to the album’s more explicitly pop context. “last piece” switches from spacious verses to the repetitive, relentlessly gothic drama of the chorus; with Li deftly switching between swift syncopated verses and the drawn-out yearning of the chorus. Title track “so sad so sexy” is a highlight: its emotional devastation facing up to the audaciousness of its titular refrain. This balancing act is present on “better alone” too, which starts with a sampled breath that could be the result of sobbing or fucking, or both.
Penultimate track “bad woman” tackles flawed womanhood; a topic currently having something of a cultural moment in music by Tove Lo and novels by Sally Rooney and Chris Kraus, among many others. In the past, Li has presented herself as destructive in love, but here she’s destructive because she’s bad, because it’s inherent in her personality – “I’d try to change/but I’m a bad woman”. It could be read as a development, a further understanding of self – or it could be a feminist position: if men can present themselves as bad in their art, why can’t women? It’s bold and relatable for a lot of women, but it’s not necessarily interesting in and of itself. If “bad woman” is the mission statement of the album, it feels like empty posturing. so sad so sexy has undisputed ambition, but the emotional mastery of Li’s best work is too often lost in the haze.