Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman has proven to be one of this generation’s finest songwriters, penning lyrics that are often sad, romantic, funny or combinations of all three.
Since the 21st century began, Sweden has become one of the biggest exporters of pop music. If there’s one area where many Swedish artists falter, though, it’s lyricism – at least lyrics in English anyway. It’s hard enough to learn a second language after all, and writing clever or interesting song lyrics is even difficult for a native speaker.
Lekman isn’t a normal artist, though. Writing in English, he has proven to be a songwriting genius in my opinion, tossing out clever line after clever line in song after song. In “A Postcard to Nina,” Lekman pretends to be a girl’s boyfriend so her family doesn’t find out that she’s a lesbian. In the song “An Argument with Myself,” he does just that: “Having an argument with myself down Victoria Street, passing the market now, the windows in neon illuminating my path to defeat.”
Beginning his career with some self-released EPs, Lekman soon attracted attention with his songs “Maple Leaves” and “Black Cab.” He signed with Service Records and released his first LP, “When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog,” in 2004. Lekman’s debut showed him as an expert lyricist and melodist, whose talents were undercut by an undeveloped sound. In 2007 he released his next album, “Night Falls Over Kortedala,” which was a huge improvement.
In 2011, Lekman released a five-song EP called “An Argument with Myself.” It wasn’t perfect, but it showed a change in sound that suited him. While his older work was very sample-heavy, “An Argument with Myself” avoided samples for the most part, and despite being small (as EPs generally are), the release was a big step forward musically for Lekman. “An Argument with Myself” seemed like a precursor to a phenomenal LP.
Lekman’s new full-length album, “I Know What Love Isn’t,” was released earlier this month and was recorded over a period of three years (2004-07), but hardly seems like it. It feels as intact as anything Lekman has released so far. At the same time, it’s not as phenomenal as one might hope.
After a piano intro called “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name,” “Erica America” begins. With beautiful music and Lekman’s usual clever lyrics, it’s definitely a highlight. It is followed by “Become Someone Else’s,” another highlight.
For the first three tracks, “I Know What Love Isn’t” feels like the album that Lekman has had in him since he first began releasing music. But the fourth track, “Some Dandruff on Your Shoulder,” is a bit unsurprising. It’s cute enough and has a nice melody, but after the two flawless songs that open the album, it proves that Lekman is still very much capable of an unmemorable track or two.
On “I Know What Love Isn’t,” there are also two other songs that don’t live up to the standard the rest of the record sets: the six-minute “The World Moves On” and “The End of the World is Bigger Than Love.” None of these songs are awful and I’m sure that plenty of people will like them, but the rest of the album works so well in so many ways that even the slightest flaw is noticeable.
The best example of this is the title track. “I Know What Love Isn’t” is one of the best songs of 2012. Clever lyrically and dazzling musically, it completely sticks out as a magnificent song on an otherwise subtle album.
In the first verse, Lekman goes girl-watching with a female friend, quipping, “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.”
Then, in the second verse, he offers to get married for the citizenship (Lekman is very easy to compare to Belle & Sebastian), before giving his reason for not enjoying concerts, “I hate bands. It’s always packed with men spooning their girlfriends, clutching their hands as if they let go their feet would lift from the ground and ascend.”
The title track blows every other track out of the water, but that doesn’t mean “I Know What Love Isn’t” isn’t a good album. It shows that Lekman is definitely capable of releasing a masterpiece, although I just don’t believe he’s done it yet.
This record feels less like his career album and more like an album leading to it, but that’s okay. Lekman is only 31. He still has plenty of years and albums left in him. It’ll be interesting to hear what he comes up with next.
Key Tracks: “I Know What Love Isn’t,” “She Just Don’t Want to Be with You Anymore” and “Become Someone Else’s.”