Sweet release and a few sour notes: Lykke Li at The Moore Theatre

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Heartbreak has done wonders for Swedish singer Lykke Li, at least creatively speaking. Not that one should ever wish this sort of suffering upon another, but she has turned out one heck of a good breakup album in I Never Learn. Sure, many musicians have trod this well-worn path before her. Love lost is one of the deepest wells of artistic inspiration throughout history. But Li is very good at wearing her heart on her sleeve, and she wears it well.

In translating that ache and longing into a live experience at The Moore Theater in Seattle, Li went for a simultaneously stripped down and extravagant show. She and her whole five-piece band were clad all in somber black, and the set design consisted of simple swaths of gauzy black fabric hung from the ceiling. The band was placed more off to each side of the stage, leaving plenty of space for the star to be front and center. But the show also used the most artificial fog I’ve seen in a long time, and the mostly floor-level lights strobed and swelled throughout, upping the intensity considerably.

This interplay between quiet introspection and bombastic release, between organic and synthesized sounds, are part of what make Lykke Li’s music so appealing. It is also a bit hard to categorize and pin down. She has been called a pop singer, yet she shows much more depth than that category would imply. She has been labeled an electronic artist, yet her band includes (at times) acoustic guitars and frequent use of pedal steel guitar, giving it an almost alt-country sound. Mostly, I think it sounds like catharsis, and the struggle to get to that point of letting go.

There was a definite buzz in the room before Li took the stage, and an uncharacteristic number of people were crowding forward to stand in the small area in front of the stage (The Moore is generally a sitting venue). One young woman rushed her friends out of their row to hit the bar, saying with a smile, “let’s go slam some shots before we see the saddest shit we’ve ever seen!”

Indeed, I tend to think of Lykke Li as alone time music, introspective and wrought with emotion. Having never seen her perform, I was unsure how it would translate to a live setting with an eager crowd. Would we dance? Would we cry?

The set began with an ocean of fog filling the stage, and ambient electronic sounds filling the speakers. The crowd screamed as Li took the stage, decked out in a broad-shouldered black snakeskin jacket (very 80s). Li took the microphone and struck a pose, announcing her commanding presence before she even uttered a note. The music began–swelling, mellow, organic, getting stronger and more synth-rich as the night went on. Many songs were sad, yet sweet; but a feel good kind of sadness, and nowhere near saccharine.

“I’m really shy, but I love to dance. And no one likes to dance alone,” Li said as she later implored the crowd to dance along. She certainly didn’t seem shy from where I was standing, making dramatic use of the stage and her microphone stand. A singer who does not play an instrument must do more to hold the audience’s attention, and Lykke Li has her stage presence down pat.

Musical highlights for me included the newer single “No Rest For The Wicked”, the aching and alluring “Gunshot”, and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs”. It made perfect sense that Li, who has traded in heartbreak and sadness her whole career, would choose this famously heartbroken band to cover. Indeed, she can be seen somewhat as a musical successor to Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, but adding in more electronic sounds of these modern times.

This was the first show of her US tour, and it did seem there were a few kinks to iron out. There were some longer pauses between songs, as Li checked to see what came next or left to swap one black costume for another. The biggest problem with the night for me, though, was that Lykke Li’s voice was noticeably off key at several points. I am no great stickler and do not claim to have anything close to perfect pitch, but her voice clearly wandered off track at times. I found this distracting.

I wondered if it was more false modesty, or an admission of shortcoming when she said, “It’s my first show in months, and I feel like I’ve forgotten how to sing.” Certainly, Lykke Li is a great songwriter and performer. Her new album is some of her strongest material to date. But her live singing could indeed use some polishing. Or perhaps this was just an off night as the tour got underway. Still, it was a good show despite its flaws, and an interesting evening of music and spectacle.

About Isaac Kaplan-Woolner