Long before Jens Lekman was an internationally-beloved troubadour, back when he was just a sad-eyed, blue-eyed Gothenburg local making melancholy songs out of samples in his bedroom, he wrote a song called "Julie." It was an ode to a crush, and the things he sung about —"eating french fries by the dock of the bay/lots of ketchup and mayonnaise"— were imagined flirtations; the stuff of lonely daydreams. Only, then, to make the song true, Lekman acted them out.
It was a definitive moment not just in Lekman's songwriting, but in his life. Lekman's early songs were of a memoirist bent —stories about girls, all youthful romanticism and melancholy— but, here, Lekman started to act with his days and songs in step. It was the moment when the art and the artist intersected; to the point where being Jens Lekman, songwriter, became the Swede's raison d'être, living life just so he could write about it.
In the 21st century, this kind of meta self-awareness is fairly commonplace; one need only think of reality television, social networking, and the tenor of constant performance that has crept into culture; of how people seem to be constantly acting. But music, at its best, can feel like it transcends the daily pantomime, and Lekman makes it hard to hear his songs outside of the prism of himself, the songwriter.
I Know What Love Isn't, Lekman's third LP, and first since 2007 standout Night Falls Over Kortedala, is an album of heartache; less a traditional breakup than a study of what love and relationships mean; in both the contemporary world and in Lekman's mind. Listening to him singing things like "I almost died when you introduced me as a friend" or "I wish I'd never met you" or "she just doesn't want to be with you anymore," it should verily burn with heartache. Except that it doesn't; feeling, instead, like Lekman living out the experiences of the breakup just so he can write songs about it.
Erica and Jennifer and Erica
Which is not to say that I Know What Love Isn't lacks authenticity, or that such an elusive notion actually really matters. Instead, it feels like a record whose very sincerity seems a little insincere; all these pretty melodies, sad songs, pianos, strings, saxophones, and lyrical quips gun for genuine beauty and big heartbreak, but maybe just miss the mark.
In terms of craft, however, Lekman has grown in leaps and bounds since his early days of warped samples and rough fidelity. Here, he makes his first genuinely cohesive LP, a suite of songs in which a narrative thread —heartache leading to moving on— runs throughout. "You don't get over a broken heart/you just learn to carry it gracefully," Lekman philosophises, at the end of album highlight "The World Moves On," a six-minute, Paul Simon-influenced epic that sets the uneasy immediate aftermath of a breakup against a sweltering summer in Lekman's adopted home-away-from-home, Melbourne.
Keeping with a career-long study, there's another litany of locations and proper names; girls' names, of course, with Erica, Jennifer, Samantha, Danae et al added to the Julies of his catalog. There's impressive women as musical foils, too, from guest vocals from Melbourne chanteuse Sophia Brous and Architecture in Helsinki's Kellie Sutherland, to the one-woman-string-section of Marla Hansen (a Sufjan associate whose solo career seems, sadly, abandoned).
Hansen, in particular, manages to give Lekman the feeling of 'stripped down vastness' he is going for on The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love. The album uses a handful of instruments to sound both big and airy; using the chime of piano and the swell of strings whilst never calling in the symphony, getting the emotional heft whilst sounding spare, somewhat frail. It's a sound in keeping with Lekman's life/oeuvre: a little too thoughtful; its beauty coming of as studied, its sentiments considered, its lyrics like well-rehearsed anecdotes.
Record Label: Secretly Canadian
Release Date: September 4, 2012