New York City’s Apollo Theater has undoubtedly heard many a sad song from musicians legendary to obscure, but perhaps never has the storied venue experienced such a devastatingly brilliant and emotionally gut-wrenching performance as that of Lykke Li. The Swedish pop artist brought her soulful tunes to Harlem’s West Side last Thursday as part of her international tour for I Never Learn, her third studio album. Li slinked back and forth across the stage over the course of a set that featured 18 songs pulled from her sturdy repertoire, angelically crooning lyrics that broke the hearts of the sold-out audience before piecing them back together and making them dance with joy.
Li kicked off the show in dramatic fashion with the title track from her new record. As the first distinctive chords rang out from the guitar, smoke poured from all corners of the stage, lights flashing on the floor from the rafters to reveal the silhouettes of Li and her band. Curtains dangled seemingly from the heavens, dividing the stage and giving it an air of mystery, and a spotlight shone on Li as she took the stage and sang out the opening notes of the song to a theater packed with devotees. Through the first four songs, the crowd sat captivated as Li performed three songs from her new album, including the memorable and emotional single “No Rest for the Wicked,” in which Li recited the haunting lyric “I let my good one down, I let me my true love die, I had his heart but I broke it every time.” As heavy as the mood was in the Apollo following this song, Li quickly brought it back up, lifting the audience to its feet with “Jerome,” a favorite from her last record (Wounded Rhymes). The crowd danced as Li strutted across the stage and around the semi-transparent curtains, singing lyrics full of hope and relief.
Although Lykke Li sprinkled several of her biggest hits throughout the set, never once did the pace of the show drag. Between the well-known “Little Bit,” “I Follow Rivers,” and “Youth Knows No Pain,” Li passionately performed some of her best songs as the audience listened attentively, seemingly feeling every emotion injected into the venue.
If Li’s sweet voice and heartfelt lyrics didn’t capture the audience, her humility and maturity did. Throughout the concert Li spoke of her music as “my art,” a refreshing perspective to hear from a pop artist, and repeatedly joked with the audience, suggesting at one point that the audience sit down for a slow song, and quipping at another that her new album was “a bit of a bummer.” While these interactions provided a much-needed reprieve from the overall somber feel of the show, they also gave the concert an intimate feel and further endeared the audience to Li.
While every song was an experience on its own, several songs in particular stood out as highlights. During “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone,” most of the band left the stage, leaving only Li and one or two of her musicians. Above the low drone of an acoustic guitar, Li’s voice cracked as she delivered the song’s damaging lyrics, and a truly sorrowful silence permeated the room. On the opposite end of the spectrum, intense red lighting and smoke filled the stage for “Rich Kid Blues.” Li and her band energetically performed the song as the entire audience stood, some dancing, others simply taking in a moment completely converse to the rest of Li’s concert. As the group finished the song, the opening notes of Beyoncé’s hit single “Drunk in Love” played from the speakers. Li and her backup vocalist chimed along, repeating the intro several times before finally fading out and ending the song to the rapturous applause of the New York City audience. While the majority of Li’s songs were performed very close to their album-equivalents, this improvisation showcased Li’s ability to deviate from the norm and offer her fans a bit of live flare. Following an encore break, Li closed her set with a new Swedish song titled “Du Är Den Ende” (which translates to “You Are the Only”), and “Sadness is a Blessing,” another one of her biggest hits.
Li joked at the end of her set that she is just, “a one-trick pony,” but her impressive performance at the Apollo Theater proved her to be far more than that, both as a lyricist and a vocalist. Dramatic lighting and a smoke-filled stage may have added to the ambiance of the event, but on this evening Li’s music stood out as the greatest highlight. Her emotional songs left the crowd wrapped around her finger and demonstrated that she shares a very important wavelength with her fans. As long as Lykke Li continues to write music and sing, she will undoubtedly have an audience to hear, feel and experience her art.
I Never Learn
Love Out of Lust
Just Like a Dream
No Rest for the Wicked
Never Gonna Love Again
Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone
I Follow Rivers
Rich Kids Blues
Heart of Steel
Youth Knows No Pain
Du Är Den Ende
Sadness Is a Blessing