It’d be hard to argue against Lykke Li’s power on stage. She’s the type of performer to transfix a room and – despite her self-proclaimed shyness on stage – it’s a domain the Swedish 28-year-old navigates with ease.
Stopping in Toronto in support of her third studio album – May 2014’s I Never Learn – Li brought a minimal light and stage show with her. Rather than the frills that normally accompany Kool Haus headlining slots, her voice carried the show and the audience’s attention. Her five-piece backing band similarly held back, providing rich additions of instrumentation rather than overt wallops of sound.
Li was quick to drop in the city’s name during her set – a smart tactic that quickly built up repertoire between her and the near-sold out crowd. “Toronto, are you ready to dance?” she asked after a slow and steady performance of “Jerome”, off of 2011 sophomore album Wounded Rhymes. “Just a little bit with me. Because I’m too shy and I’m not very good at it.”
To be fair, Li’s dance songs aren’t what you’d typically associate with the genre – her performance of “Dance, Dance, Dance” from 2008 debut Youth Novels more a burn than a banger. It did the trick though, the audience seemingly enthralled by both Li and the use of slide guitar on the track.
Musically and aesthetically, Li’s closer to the camp of Lady Gaga than she is Britney Spears. She’s also – and hear me out on this – a weird hybrid of Lorde meets Nelly Furtado. A lot of it has to do with Li and Furtado’s matching timbre (the Lorde more to do with her minimalist look.) Neither Li nor Furtado delivers a warble; but it’s also not an entirely pristine soprano. Throughout the night all I could think was: this is Nelly Furtado if she was Swedish (and therefore inherently cooler and willing to take more risks.)
The aching “Sleeping Alone”, off of Li’s latest album, was delivered with every ounce of emotion you’d hope for, while the accompanying drum-and-bass on “I Follow Rivers” positioned the song as another of the night’s big moments. “Never Gonna Love Again” was similarly well received, Li calling for lighters and iPhones to be put in the air for the power ballad – a request the audience all too readily accepted.
It wasn’t entirely perfect, however. The shift from minimalism to full-on-instrumentals in “Youth Knows No Pain” (the lead track on I Never Learn) was botched by her drummer. Li called him out on stage, telling the crowd: “He’s a bad drummer, this one. Do it right this time.” She said it with a wink in her eye, but all the same: remind me never to piss Lykke Li off.
Li ended her set with an intense electronic pounding on “Get Some”, a single from the new album that was produced by Bjorn of Peter Bjorn and John fame. Her and the band left the stage to rapturous applause, returning for an encore and ending on the slower, more measured “Heart of Steel”.
If you were hoping for evidence that Lykke Li is worth investigating as your new favourite “indie pop” star – this was it. A summer spent at festivals helped her establish the grandiose moments and she’s certainly built up enough of a back catalogue to meet all the requisite highs and lows. It’ll be interesting now to see how much of the general public she’ll be able to entertain and whether she’ll end up in (or even want to play) significantly larger rooms. It’s music that may be weird and ambitious, but Li and her live show have proven to be worth the investment.
Thanks to Collective Concerts for media access.