On a recent, dreary spring day, the Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li went for a walk around lower Manhattan. She wore a big black trenchcoat. And as she traversed the Bowery, she couldn’t help but think of herself as a character in a film. “There is always a movie playing in my mind,” she told me the next afternoon. “I go through dramatic things, and I zoom out.”
This cinematic impulse is not new. Li, 36, is a big fan of European arthouse films. She directed the music video for “Wings of Love,” a 2016 song by the supergroup Liv, of which Li is a member, and for “I’m Waiting Here,” a collaboration with the director David Lynch, and she has appeared on screen herself, including in the 2017 Terrence Malick movie Song to Song. But it comes into focus on Eyeye, her fifth album (out May 20; the second single, “Highway to Your Heart,” comes out this week). On the song “5D,” for example, she wonders: “Is it only in the movies you love me?” and later, “is there anywhere we could be 5D?”—grasping for a higher-definition experience while acknowledging that, perhaps, her fantasies exist only in her imagination. At the beginning of the album opener, “No Hotel,” the chirrups of cicadas and hum of an air conditioner permeate the track. She referenced the way that diegetic sound and music blend together on screen: “When you score a movie, you embrace where you’re at,” she said. “I let all the sounds bleed through.”
Li began writing Eyeye in the middle of 2019 and continued working on it into early 2020. Her previous release, So Sad So Sexy, featured a number of collaborators and co-writers, lush production, and more oblique lyrics; in response to this relative bombast, she aimed to make something pared-back, intimate, and direct. “I always ping-pong from one extreme to the other,” she said. She enlisted Björn Yttling, of the aughts indie band Peter Bjorn and John, to help write and record. (Yttling had worked on her first three albums, but not So Sad So Sexy.)
Eyeye has a common lineage with her previous four albums—including her 2011 breakout, Wounded Rhymes—in that they all share a prismatic focus on the end of a relationship. “I always write from what I’m going through at the time. Even when we’re in a specific relationship, we kind of view it from the lens of all the relationships that happened to us,” she said. “It’s one relationship, but also all my relationships combined and my relationship to love and romanticism.”
So as she worked on the new album, Li realized she’d been here before. “I was stuck in my own repetition. I was taking a personal matter and turning it into an album,” she said. Rinse and repeat. She became obsessed with iterative patterns and cycles. (Not for nothing is the title a palindrome and a play on the first-person “I.”) She wanted to layer a meta narrative over the record—writing about making songs about heartbreak. The first song she wrote for the album, “No Hotel,” opens with the lines: “There’s no hotel, no cigarette; and you’re still in love with someone else.” I pointed out that the lyrics were so blunt and direct as to feel almost like a performance of grief and heartbreak. “It’s hard to decipher what is real and what’s not when you’re a creator,” she said. “You create from a real place—but then, you’re also performing.”
Li and Yttling both told me that thinking about the album like a movie was freeing. “There could be more different types of tracks than on a regular pop album,” Yttling said. Maybe the songs build slowly toward a climax instead of swelling into a chorus. The album could end with a “softer, weirder” outro.
They recorded songs through early 2020—until pandemic travel restrictions threw up a barrier, since Yttling is based in Stockholm and Li in Los Angeles. But sitting with those demos proved fruitful. Li read Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, about the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs, and dabbled in mushrooms “and a lot of other things,” she said. She found psychedelic therapy “incredibly effective, mind-blowing, life-changing,” she told me; it resulted, in part, in the “grand soundscapes” of the music and the altered-consciousness aesthetic of the videos.
Photographs by Theo Lindquist
As we talked, I sensed there were some topics Li did not want to get into. Earlier this year, before she announced Eyeye, a handful of tabloids began reporting, erroneously, that she was dating Brad Pitt—she demurred on a question about what it was like to observe the rumor mill churning around her, describing it as a “quite bizarre and absurd” experience. It made sense to me that someone who was so lyrically open might want to circumscribe and protect her innermost life. Maybe playing a character in her music was another way to do that—to talk about the emotional fallout of a breakup without giving away too much. So toward the end of our conversation, I asked Li about the contrast between the frank, memoiristic nature of her lyrics and the line she seems to draw around her personal life in conversation. “It would almost be vulgar,” she said. “I am very open and honest with the people close to me—I very much like that in other people, too, when you can exchange vulnerability or intimacy. But in a close circle.”
“She wears her heart on her sleeve,” said Theo Lindquist, a longtime friend and the creative director for Eyeye (he directed the album’s seven music videos). “It comes across in her songs, and I think in her performances too.” (When I emailed Lindquist to fact-check this story, he added: “She’s a taskmaster and works harder than anyone.”)
Li said injecting so much of herself into Eyeye, including appearing in the videos,was cathartic. “I’m finally reborn,” she told me at one point. They shot the videos—whose references included the films of Gaspar Noé, Last Tango in Paris, Koyaanisqatsi, and Blue Valentine—in Los Angeles last spring. Each one composes a single scene in a larger, very meta narrative: an actor (played by Unorthodox’s Jeff Wilbusch) and actress (Li) shooting a gangster-romance film. The videos, roughly minute-long fragments, loop over and over—an apparent echo of the album’s interest in recursion and performance. What’s real? And what’s the movies? In the end, such distinctions might not mean anything.