Reached by phone backstage at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, in the draggy hours between soundcheck and show time, Jens Lekman is all apologies.
“I’m sorry it took so long,” the 31-year-old Swede says of his new full-length album, I Know What Love Isn’t, which arrived last month almost five years to the day since his previous LP, Night Falls Over Kortedala. “For some things, you have to go in a circle for a while to get there.”
After a grueling year-long world tour behind Kortedala, Lekman decided to live life rather than just write songs about it or perform it, moving to the U.S., then Melbourne–where he DJ’ed and worked odd jobs–and finally back to Sweden again after visa issues sent him packing from Australia. Along the way he endured a brief bout with swine flu and a more lasting ailment–an acutely broken heart. For a long time he fought the impulse to make “yet another breakup album,” he laughs. “Of course, it all just led me back to that in the end.”
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If the simple, elegiac piano melody of I Know What Love Isn’t‘s opening instrumental track, “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name,” suggests the sadness that’s to come, that mood is quickly dispelled by the kind of upbeat, sophisticated arrangements Lekman’s hung his hat on for the past decade.
Yet if the album’s outward face is pure Brill Building –buoyant and breezy pop bedecked with strings, flutes, and Latin or Mediterranean acoustic guitars like so many Art Deco flourishes–behind the elegance and romance is an abandoned heart; a crushed interior teetering on collapse. In the silky “Erica America,” Lekman deploys his lustrous baritone alongside swaying rhythms and smooth saxophone to sing of empty promises and regret: “I wish I’d never met you/like I wish I’d never tasted wine/Or tasted it from lips that weren’t mine/Now every drop tastes more bitter all the time.”
With a style of croon and phrasing that occasionally garners Morrissey comparisons, Lekman uses “Some Dandruff on Your Shoulder” to artfully describe the tipping point when your significant other’s flaws become more apparent than their magic. And in the title track–a tale of the singer’s real-life flirtation with marrying his best friend so he could stay in Melbourne–Lekman casts a cynical glance at the nature of love: “Let’s get married/I’m serious/But only for the citizenship/I’ve always liked the idea of it/A relationship doesn’t lie about its intentions and shit.”
Not that every lyric is a downer. Lekman offers some of his patented droll humor–as in “The End of the World is Bigger Than Love,” when he doggedly tries to convince himself that “a broken heart is not the end of the world” by insisting that the end of the world supercedes every other big thing: Love, icebergs, “the spider floating in your cider,” “the Flatbush Avenue Target” (and “their pharmacy department”).
Lekman says part of the delay in putting the wraps on I Know What Love Isn’t had to do with refining his balance between wit and despair. “When I started writing songs, every time I was trying to make someone laugh, they would cry. They would find it extremely sad. And every time I was trying to sing about something very serious, people would laugh. There’s a lot of that on my first album [2004’s When I Said I Wanted to be Your Dog]–when I would perform the sad songs live, the audience would laugh at them and I didn’t really get it. I think I was the last person to understand irony.”
Some of the tunes he wrote after Kortedala were pure amusement–like “Waiting for Kirsten,” a number about staking out actress Kirsten Dunst’s hotel in Gothenburg; those tracks ended up on last year’s An Argument With Myself EP as a way “to get rid of a few songs that didn’t fit with the album,” he explains. For the new album, Lekman wanted to play around with the dichotomy, to have the funny bits set up a punch, rather than merely be punchlines. Such as in “The World Moves On,” when he sings of hugging a bag of frozen peas to stay cool in a Melbourne summer, of making out with a girl while brush fires consume nearby towns, and of getting run off the road by a cigarette-mooching scooter-pilot while riding his bike, all seemingly in the service of establishing the optimistic notion that life moves on after love ends, only to drop the album’s central bummer: “You don’t get over a broken heart/You just learn to carry it gracefully.”
“I don’t think you ever get over it,” Lekman reaffirms, even though some time has passed since his heart was torched. He’s digging up old wounds every night on tour with his four-piece backing band, trying to get closer to the essence of each song. Will that help him move on? “Maybe,” he laughs. “We’ll see when the next album is done.”
Could be a while…
Jens Lekman plays Terminal 5 tonight at 8 p.m., along with Taken By Trees. Tickets are $25-$30.