Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t

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Christgau thinks this is Jens’ (so far) only mis-step; in his consumer guide, praising the tune and lamenting the energy (specifically, the lack thereof). In more recent detail, Christgau wrote this: “[Jens] had his heart broke by a love affair — a quick one, he told me recently, although between his thoughtful romanticism and the size of the hurt, I’d always assumed it was more like a divorce. Bummed and at loose ends, he couldn’t decide what to do with the songs he’d been eking out until a pal showed him that the ones that became An Argument With Myself formed a unit. Soon followed the equally coherent 2012 breakup album I Know What Love Isn’t. But coherence doesn’t equal impact any more than doleful equals thoughtful, and I Know What Love Isn’t was no Night Falls Over Kortedala. Lekman remains proud of it. But he also feels it indulged “a cynical side of me.” He found that when he toured behind it — as he did, hard — such personal favorites as “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots” and “I Know What Love Isn’t” “crumbled” up against such Kortedala rousers as “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” which is every bit as much about dolor.”

It’s easy to see where Christgau is coming from – it’s likely the same mindset that led him to conclude Carrie & Lowell as one of Sufjan Stevens’ less worthies – and the general press seem to agree with him, and the five-year wait between Kortedala and I Know What Love Isn’t certainly didn’t help. But listening and re-listening, I don’t think this one’s a mis-step at all; I won’t be daft enough to posit that it’s as good as When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog or Kortedala, but I’ll certainly float the idea that it’s just more proof that Jens Lekman is a top-tier singer/songwriter. And I’d argue that it’s certainly a smoother listen thanKortedala – more on that later.

Because it’s a breakup record (Lekman: “I don’t want to go too much into my personal experience, but it was definitely the worst break-up of my life so far”), the choruses don’t pop as much by way of “Maples Leave” or “Your Arms Around Me”, to say nothing of “The Opposite of Hallelujah.” Lekman, again: “The one thing I planned from the beginning that the album seemed to agree with me on was that I wanted it to be aerodynamic. You know how in the early 90s, a lot of the songs were very focused on the verses being very quiet, and the choruses being super loud, like Nirvana? I was looking for the opposite of that, where you hardly notice where the chorus starts; it’s just like an airplane taking off from a runway, smooth, and all of a sudden you’re in the air.” And he succeeds! The verses of “Some Dandruff on Your Shoulder” and “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots” bleed into the choruses (and vice versa), and the only way you understand that the song has changed is because you’ve started to inadvertently sing along to both memorable choruses before the first listen’s up; one hopes I shouldn’t have to highlight just how effective “She asks you what’s wrong, you say nothing / It’s nothing” is (to say nothing of how he sings “Baby, what’s wrong” right after).

Would I have been happier, if the record contained some of the best cuts fromAn Argument With Myself, including the playful title track and the songwriting triumph of “Waiting for Kirsten” (especially the bits about the changing culture in Sweden, “They turned a youth-center into a casino / They drew a swastika in your cappuccino”)? Absolutely, and methinks their inclusion would have solidified this one’s status as another great Jens Lekman album, but they wouldn’t have fit with I Know What Love Isn’t’s heartbreak theme or general sound. Which brings me back to my point of a smoother listen: Jens notes that this – his third album – feels like his first proper album, by which he means – to use that music critic cliché – the first to function as a cohesive unit rather than a collection of songs (Kortedala’s final tracklist was famously picked by his friends).

Some other minor quibbles: like some Lekman songs, the title track can be criticized as being too precise both musically and lyrically. The sweetness of the chimed melody that opens the track means it’s only fitting for certain moods; I confess it feels odd to hear Jens (and his friend Danae) cruise down the street objectifying girls (“Look to the left, there’s a 9.5 down the street / And, to my right, a perfect 10 sitting in the driver’s seat”), the girl’s laughter to his proposal (though she quiets down when he reveals it’s “only for the citizenship”) and how he rhymes “shit” with “it” (you’re better than that, Jens). But the melody’s gold; dig how the drums celebrate the perfection of the girl in the car next to them or launch Jens singing the word “Ascend” so it actually does that (bringing us into the choruses). On the words, “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name” has a similar problem of precision: “Every chord I struck was a miserable chord / Like an Fm11 or an Ebmaj7” (he doesn’t sing them like that, but he might as well have).

Not that all of the words are this way. There’s the imagery of “We made out in every bar in town / While the state of Victoria burned down to the ground” on a song titled “The World Moves On,” to say nothing of Jens Lekman getting rejected by a possum (“Watch the possums and listen to their growling banter / There was one I liked especially; I named her Sam, as in Samantha / I offered a slice of apple from my hand / She would sniff it, frown, and then lumber back to the trash can”) or the chorused “You don’t get over a broken heart / You just learn to carry it gracefully.” Then there’s the list at the end of “The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love (fittingly sequenced immediately afterwards), “And it’s bigger than the spider / Floating in your cider […] Than the Flatbush Avenue Target / And their pharmacy department.” It’s stuff like this that distinguishes Lekman from other “sadsack” artists that deal with breakups: he manages humour and sadness in the same swoop.

And for Jens’ own talk of a limited colour palette compared to the “rainbow” ofKortedala (Lekman: “With the last album, Night Falls Over Kortedala, I created a big rainbow of different colors on my little palette. But, for this album, I only chose a few of those colors, so it’s a little bit more held back”), I think this one is still plenty colourful, despite the inherent introversion. Even ignoring stuff like the unexpected saxophone of de facto opener “Erica America” or the peppy horns that come in for the first verse after the chorus of centerpiece “The World Moves On”, the piano playing throughout is exquisite: the playfulness during the choruses of “Become Someone Else’s” to the fills in “Some Dandruff on Your Shoulder” and “The World Moves On.” To say nothing of the backing vocals throughout, or the supple rhythm section on “Some Dandruff on Your Shoulder.”

All told, still worthy for consideration: another great album from a great artist.

A-

 

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3 responses to “Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t

  1. Wow. What a wonderful piece, thoughtful and informative… and I didn’t even know who this artist is before I got here!

    Listening to the linked song and it’s interesting. A lot going on. I wanna write it off as twee pop but I can’t. It’s got something about it that’s holding my ear…

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