How Jens Lekman Got His Groove Back
Lekman: No longer a font of song, but still making breakthroughs.
Jens Lekman will play three prestige NYC venues this coming week: Bowery Ballroom Saturday, Music Hall of Williamsburg Sunday, Rough Trade Monday. This is good news that came true the hard way. Back when he released Night Falls Over Kortedala in 2007, Lekman felt like one of those inexhaustible fonts of song who occasionally grace our mortal coil. But magic fountains have a way of drying up, and replenishing them is never a gimme. So there was no way to know for certain that in the end Lekman would get his flow back — at a higher level of difficulty.
Because he's a Swede from industrial Gothenburg who in 2000 quit college at nineteen to pursue his muse yet wasn't signed by Indiana-based super-indie Secretly Canadian until 2003, Lekman didn't burst forth quite as suddenly as it seemed. But in addition to his debut When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog and the early recordings on "Oh You're So Silent Jens," Night Falls Over Kortedala came in the wake of seven EPs. That's a whole lot of songs fast, all marked by his gentle baritone, gentler humor, and a melodic knack enhanced by samples from his alt-rock compeers and whatever pop struck his opportunistic fancy. He was a thoughtful romantic whose lyrics were coherent and detailed, autobiographical as opposed to confessional — ironic at times, but never mean about it. Samples notwithstanding, he had the aura of a singer-songwriter, and since haters gotta hate, some wise guys slotted him twee. But the lilt, wit, facts, and decency of Kortedala were a culmination regardless.
Yet soon the Swedish songbag wasn't unstoppable anymore. Not that he disappeared — America is his biggest market. I caught his third straight sold-out Music Hall of Williamsburg show in October of 2011, where the slight, balding thirty-year-old was accompanied by an acoustic guitar, an eight-string ukulele, disco backups unfurled mostly at the end, and a bearded drummer twice his size. The setlist featured two striking selections from his then just-released EP An Argument With Myself, one of them "Waiting for Kirsten," which pieces together Lekman's Kirsten Dunst fandom with the unraveling of Sweden's socialist safety net. But there was also new material that impressed me less, and not just because I hadn't memorized it yet.
What I witnessed at that show without knowing it was a turning point. Lekman didn't know it either. But he'd 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. And in addition, it didn't sell. Before he knew it his heartbreak flowered into a full depression.
Lekman's confusion had already put five years between Kortedala and its de facto follow-up — five years when streaming had crippled album sales anyway. But sales had sunk even further by 2013, the year Secretly Canadian rejected a new album and Lekman committed to the therapy he'd sampled at nine and twenty-one. To make ends meet he did a Swedish living room tour and began gigging as a wedding singer, a proposition dating to the early "If You Ever Need a Stranger to Sing at Your Wedding" even if he doesn't literally "know every song, you name it/By Bacharach or David." He was in a bad way.
And then, in 2015, he fought his way out with two complementary projects: Postcards, which committed him to posting a new song to SoundCloud every week, and Ghostwriting, in which Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center commissioned a concert's worth of songs based on patrons' personal stories (now also on SoundCloud). Predictably, Postcards has its misses, including several instrumentals and a 37-second Kaposi's sarcoma fundraiser. And because the titles are numbers, negotiating them is tricky — I've yet to find the rumored refugee and Bataclan entries. But I do recommend "Postcard #8," Walpurgisnacht in Helsinki; "Postcard #33," a doowop number about writing your way back from seeing your face at the bottom of a lake; and "Postcard #23," which ends, "There's nothing wrong with me/I'm just a human being with a lot of feelings/With a lot of questions." Plus the two Lekman included on his new album, which does more than put a happy ending on his saga.
Life Will See You Now isn't merely a comeback. Its way prepared by his 2015 projects, it's a leap forward — the kind of record thirty-six-year-olds ought to make instead of repeating or contorting themselves. For one thing, he's become a warmer and fuller singer, with a purposefulness you'd have to be pretty cynical to label twee. That purpose is rooted in an opener that cops, as he never has before, to what can only be called his spiritual side: "To Know Your Mission," in which a young Mormon missionary induces the sixteen-year-old Jens to figure out "what you're here for," and Jens decides that if songwriting doesn't work out he'll try social work like his dad: "In a world of mouths/I want to be an ear." Soon come two loving songs about male friendship and one where a wedding singer tells the worried bride who's snuck out for a smoke, "Marry and regret it/Don't marry, and regret it too" — only to cross over a bridge that entreats: "Oh, please, distract me/From every life unlived." As we say in NYC, we've got ourselves a mensch here.
Although the new album includes only two flat-out love songs, Lekman told me he's now sharing a Gothenburg apartment with the woman who helped him name it, who's also his road manager, and whose American cellphone we were talking on: "It's super nice to actually work with your girlfriend." On the evidence of "How We Met, the Long Version" — the really long version, starting with the Big Bang and ending with Jens borrowing his future inamorata's bass — I guessed she was a band member, too. No such luck. But in recompense there's no beardo drummer this time. On the Life Will See You Now tour, the keyboard-bass-drums band is manned entirely by women — and coming to a venue near you.
Of course, none of these prestige venues is exactly a large one, and even if he fills all three he's not about to amass mountains of cheddar here. So he'll be at the merch table with his girlfriend after every show. America is indeed his biggest market — he doesn't even have a label in Sweden. But you get the sense that at this point Lekman thinks the market will have to take care of itself. He knows his mission. And assuming the fountain doesn't dry up again, you can figure he'll make the most of it.
Jens Lekman plays the Bowery Ballroom March 18; the Music Hall of Williamsburg March 19; and Rough Trade March 20.
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