Lykke Li – review

O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

The fearsome woman who takes to the stage at this sold-out show is clad boot-to-cape in black, like a high art reading of a Scottish Widows advert. Surrounded by billowing black drapes, Lykke Li is lit by strobing searchlights; her five-strong band are arrayed around her like a hand of poker.

As the lights synch up with a barrage of percussion, it's as though Phil Spector were sound-tracking a tribal coven disco. "Jerome" is a troubled love song from Li's masterful second album, Wounded Rhymes, and it sets the tone for what is to come: a dramatic reinvention, electrified with sensuality and pain. The xx are here, looking on in approval.

What has happened to Lykke Li? The Swedish singer announced herself back in 2007 with a left-of-centre pop gem called "Little Bit". Its melodicism and melancholy were overshadowed by Li's voice – a cracked girlish coo that, you suspect, brought out the Lolita response in a certain tranche of her fanbase.

Her rise to the status of bloggers' darling continued with 2008's "Dance Dance Dance", a bereft ode to the boogie that fit deliciously into the lineage of tear-stained Scandinavian pop pioneered by Abba. She was good – if, perhaps, celebrated for the wrong reasons.

Now she is even better. Wounded Rhymes trounces its charming predecessor, 2008's Youth Novels. Although Li reserves that old parched soprano for the odd song – like her shivery cover of the Big Pink's "Velvet" – her voice is now a masterful, stentorian instrument, like Dusty Springfield studded with nails.Written in Los Angeles, her new songs take their heightened sense of drama from the American chanson of the 60s – the reverberating drums, the shoo-wop harmonies, and plenty of Hammond organ, all delivered with a European shiver of froideur. It is all immensely grownup. "Youth knows no pain," she spits, near the start. Li's first album was laced with a sense of heartbreak too, but this time around the anguish is deeper, and punctuated with anger.

At her wildest – on the full-blooded "Rich Kids Blues", conveyed in a blur of red lights and punishing percussion – this new, carnivorous Li sounds as though she'd happily eat her old breathy self for breakfast. Were Nick Cave not happily married, he might be considering a new muse. At the end, the vintage workout takes an abrupt turn, breaking down into a delirious rave interlude, with Lykke Li lying prone on the floor.

The rest of the time she is a brooding, restless presence, half crone, half bombshell; an alternating current of ferocity and vulnerability. For every man-eating song such as "Get Some" – Wounded Rhymes's introductory single – there is a haunting torch song in which Li's defences come down. Like a girl group in therapy, "Sadness is a Blessing" (the next single) is a vision of light and shade. "Sadness is my boyfriend," Li sings, "Will sorrow be the only lover I can call my own?"

The old songs are in great part reworked. "Dance Dance Dance" is especially riveting, relying mostly on a clatter of percussion and Li's voice. Near the end she honks a solo on a kazoo, throws it behind her, and coils her gauzy wrap around her neck like a scarf. The massed harmonies of her band recall the sweet warmth of the first-album Fleet Foxes, while the jungle drums suggest a new kinship with Karin Dreijer Andersson of Fever Ray and the Knife. On "Youth Knows No Pain", meanwhile, there is another surprise: she interpolates a segment of "Never Gonna Cry Again", a terrific early Eurythmics song released in 1981, five years before she was born.

Just as Scandinavian thriller writers took over their genre a few years ago, there was a time in the mid-00s when it appeared that a new breed of Nordic pop sirens – Robyn, Annie and Lykke Li – might refashion dance-pop. It never quite happened. Robyn has had the most success, with Grammy nominations and solid sales of her acclaimed Body Talk series of albums. Poor Annie, whose Anniemal album of 2004 promised so much, has been virtually forgotten.

In the event, there was a Scandinavian takeover of pop – it just happened behind the mixing desk, with producers such as Max Martin, RedOne, Bloodshy & Avant and a slew of others setting the template for American chart pop.

Meanwhile, Lykke Li has forsaken pop, and cutesiness, altogether for a gutsier, classic sound. Commercially, the year already belongs to Adele, but in Lykke Li we just might have an intriguing new Scandinavian auteur.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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