music criticism

Sad and Big: ‘I Never Learn’ and the State of Music Criticism

Lykke Li

Lykke Li

By Robert Masiello

Is music criticism dead?

This has been the subject of much dispute lately, with various journalists and even artists offering their two cents. In response to the ongoing debate, composer Owen Pallet recently published an article which attempted to explain the “genius” of Katy Perry’s hit ‘Teenage Dream’ using solely music theory. It was an interesting turning point for the discussion, not to mention humorous, but did not quite resolve or expand the issue. Even Pallet himself seemed to be acknowledging the soullessness of such an exercise. But the question remains: is theory the only valid way to assess music, or is there value in subjective critiques?

To explore this issue in-depth, let’s look to Swedish songwriter Lykke Li’s latest album, “I Never Learn.” Her third release is a breakup album in the truest sense, full of moody, sweeping torch songs. Although the album has garnered praise from music criticism titans such as Pitchfork Media and Consequence of Soundothers have been less receptive. Drowned in Sound states that “it has a tendency towards bombast and shallow self-indulgence,” while The Guardian opines that the songs are “just sad and big.”

And herein lays the fundamental problem of music criticism: it is bullshit. It relies more on the attitude of the listener than the songs themselves. Most modern music reviews are simply a masturbatory exercise by the writer rather than a thoughtful analysis. I will demonstrate this by presenting two contrasting reviews (both written by me) for seventh track on “I Never Learn,” ‘Never Gonna Love Again.”

1. Worst of all is the albums seventh track, "Never Gonna Love Again." The song is almost laughably overblown as well as overproduced, sort of like slapping an Instagram filter onto a cheesy 1980s power ballad. “Every time the rain falls, think of me,” pleas Li, consumed by selfishness. So obsessed with her own misery, Li seems to have forgotten that wallowing is not a flattering trait, in a person or an album.
2. “I Never Learn” peaks with its seventh track, the soaring "Never Gonna Love Again.” Cavernous production gives the song an atmospheric quality as Li launches into a heart-wrenching chorus. “Every time the rain falls, think of me,” she pleads, terrified of evanescing into her ex’s past. It’s a selfish ode to love lost, but also profoundly human.

The above analyses are nearly identical in describing the song, but differ drastically in my own attitude. As a lowly blogger, I probably have no clout as to whether or not you purchase this album (I personally find it impeccable). But the gods over at Pitchfork do have influence, and it’s a sad truth that subjective opinions can determine an artist’s success. At the very least, reading a review will influence the way a listener hears an album, whether said listener wants to believe it or not. Now I certainly recognize that I am not the first person to make these points, but I would like to offer a way that subjectivity and music criticism can coexist.

An album should not be judged based on its intended goals, but how well it achieves its goals. This will buffer the influence of a reviewer’s attitude and provide a basis for a more valid analysis. Previously cited reviewers knock “I Never Learn” for being too sad, too monotonous, and too indulgent. That’s like criticizing a chocolate cake for being too…chocolate-y. Their opinions seem to represent a general dislike for breakup albums, rather than stating why “I Never Learn” fails as a breakup album.

Anyone who’s ever been dumped knows that heartache is typically followed by a period of mourning and self-indulgence. So of course the album is self-indulgent; it was born from late nights, red wine, and long drives. And spanning a slight 33 minutes, the record is hardly overdone. As such, criticizing Li for selfishness and bombast is irrelevant and unproductive. The album proudly flaunts the irrationality of heartache, even in its title, and that’s what makes it an unequivocal success.

On the final song, Li sings “save your heart for my heart, we’ll meet again.” It’s a foolish, beautiful, and devastating sentiment to conclude a new breakup album classic.