Lykke Li has described her third album, "I Never Learn," as the final installment in a trilogy, but the lonely woman at the center of the new set is almost unrecognizable compared with the honeydew-voiced pixie who arrived with 2008's "Youth Novels." Back then, the Swedish singer-songwriter embodied the joy of possibility, both professionally and personally. Li sang about flirtation on songs like "Little Bit" and "Dance, Dance, Dance" in a charmingly timid voice, with sparse, twee indie-pop as her chosen medium, yet her quirky curiosity hinted that she could expand her sound (and audience) in several different directions. Li fulfilled some of this promise with her bigger, more confident 2011 sophomore album, "Wounded Rhymes," which was primed to be her mainstream coronation, but it never truly caught hold. The nine self-described "power ballads" of "I Never Learn," however, mostly abandon any attempt to turn Li into a late-blooming pop star. Her brightly colored early singles are a distant memory: Li is now 28, coping with a devastating recent breakup, and synthesizing that sorrow into a glorious bummer of a third album.
Li wrote most of "I Never Learn" on piano and acoustic guitar, with the clear intention of stripping away the denseness of "Wounded Rhymes" and presenting her heartbreak in the most uncluttered manner imaginable. Throughout the album, Li's pleas for reconciliation are paired with echoing guitar chords, each syllable foregrounded and lingering. "Even though it hurts, even though it scars, love me when it storms, love me when I fall," she sings on the ghostly single "Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone," the cracks in her voice matching the sounds of sliding fingers on her guitar strings. The album is founded on a pile of bleak metaphors, and Li often describes herself as dreaming in the lyrics, yearning for fantasy and dreading the wake-up call. On the devastating last song, "Sleeping Alone," even slumber can't cure her heartache -- she dimly hopes that "some way, somehow, somewhere down the line," she'll cross paths with the one who used to see her off to her dream world.
The progression of Li's vocal power over the course of her three albums has been remarkable: What began as a breathy, fragile delivery has blossomed into an earthy tone that recalls PJ Harvey in its emotional honesty. Working with Bjorn Yttling and Greg Kurstin on this album, as well as self-producing for the first time, Li channels this newfound singing strength into bare verses that burst into swelling hooks. On "Gunshot," the production turns on a dime after the haunting first verse and opens up into a full-throated chorus; a similar transition occurs in "No Rest for the Wicked," which thrives on its instantly hummable harmonies. Beneath the album's unhappiness are pop smarts, and Li can now slice through a juicy hook better than ever.
"I Never Learn" is a brave album -- it could very well alienate more fans than it brings in. But Li's songwriting is exquisite in its vulnerability; she has never sounded more sure of her aesthetic than she does in her most miserable moment. Like Beyonce's self-titled LP last year, this is a "grown-woman" album, but one focused on the sobering end of youth rather than the blissful beginnings of adulthood. Beyonce was drunk in love; Li, on the other hand, is suffering from the hangover.