A “pathetic fallacy” occurs when, in a story, nature reacts to a human emotion: when everything is going wrong and a character says something like, “At least it’s not raining,” and then BAM! it rains. Lykke Li, the current queen of heartbreak, had the opposite effect on New York City last night. A rainy morning cleared up before she took the stage at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. And what happened inside the iconic venue was a parallel exercise in finding the light when everything else is just so very dark.
Lykke Li is out touring her third LP I Never Learn. The album is an intricate reflection of all the minutia that comes along with a relationship’s end. It’s delicate in places, emphatic in others, but consistent in the way it tackles the journey. Lykke’s stage setup gave a visual interpretation of all of that: Gauzey black tapestry hung from the ceiling, fog rolled across the stage, new puffs billowing in as the others began to fade, backlighting on her band as if they were sonic apparitions from her recent breakup, and one spotlight on her. They opened with the title track from the album, alluding that perhaps they’d play it in full. For anyone in the building with a sore heart, that would have been a lot to bear — but she’s on that page, too, and what unfolded through the rest of the performance was an emotional back-and-forth between the gut-churners from I Never Learn and the dancier parts of the rest of her catalogue.
“No Rest For The Wicked” came early in the set, most of the audience stayed seated, swaying in their seats while a bold few just let her commanding nymphic voice take control. It was “Jerome,” from 2011’s Wounded Rhymes, that turned the place into party. It was a welcome respite from the heartwrenchers — a loving gesture to the scattered few who raised their hands when she asked if anyone in the audience was heartbroken before performing “Never Gonna Love Again.”
She followed up with her breakout “Little Bit” and it was here that the knottiness of romance was most palpable. Six years ago, Lykke was singing she’s “too proud for love.” Now she espouses the guttural pain that comes after love’s gooey beginning hardens until it crumbles away. The interplay between the heartache and the dance jams put into fantastic perspective how elastic our hearts can be.
“I have to admit my album is a bit of a bummer,” she said midway through her set. “So you can sit down now ’cause I’m about to sing a song about wanting to die and shit.” She yowled through “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone” and “Sleeping Alone” before releasing the crowd from her tight grasp of pain and performing “I Follow Rivers.” “I feel better now. Sometimes you just gotta let that shit out. Now we can dance.” It was the most rousing part of the show. “Rivers” became “Rich Kids Blues,” and the stage was engulfed in sultry red lighting. As the song reached its climax, she and her band sprinkled in bits of the opening of Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love.” It added an extra thrill to an already-colossal song. “Youth Knows No Pain” got a similar treatment, only with Kanye West’s “Send It Up”; Lykke even quoted King Louie (“Rock star, bitch/Call me Elvis”). Her set ended with “Get Some,” a curious conclusion to the emotional set and a head-scratcher for anyone expecting “Dance, Dance, Dance” or another track from her 2008 debut, Youth Novels.
None of those songs came in the encore, either. Clutching a half-finished bottle of Maker’s Mark, Lykke sang “a real sensual song” in Swedish, backed up by “Wicked Games“-style guitar. The night closed with the cheeky, but earnest “Sadness Is A Blessing.” After a night of melancholy married with joy, it was a righteous finale. Singing “sadness, I’m your girl” was a flawless final missive to send into the crowd.
[Photos by Caroline Harrison.]