Why so solemn, Jens Lekman? Over the last decade-plus, the Swedish pop artist has become almost a caricature of himself, so whimsical are his melodies and jolly is his temper. Even his most melancholic moments have been infused with a sense of optimism and wonder. His was the light that never went out.
But on his latest, I Know What Love Isn’t, Lekman writes from an opposite perspective. The man once charged with crafting the jingles to heal so many broken hearts has been faced with a heartbreak of his own, and seeing the ever-amiable swooner struggle through the other side of this dichotomy presents a few challenges for poet and listener alike.
Really, the most compelling track on the whole LP is its first. One of two tracks titled “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name,” the album opener is a poignant piano sonata that nicely packages the magnificent tragedy of a wilted flower without getting swallowed up by its own depression. And despite being entirely instrumental, it also highlights his greatest strength as a poet. Lekman has few peers when it comes to drawing minute details into wondrous and profound universes of thought.
And that’s why it’s so disheartening to hear him struggle with the nuance of his disposition in songs like “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots” and “The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love.” Lekman recounts conversations in which nothing happens as if there is some hidden meaning behind them, but the meaning is much more obvious than he thinks. Lekman probably wasn’t the trigger man in the end of this relationship, but you’d think an observer and poet as astute as him would have a stronger or more stoic grasp on the particularities that fell away from him. Instead, he spends a fair portion of I Know What Love Isn’t kicking his feet, both literally and figuratively.
So it’s a testament to Lekman’s songwriting ability that songs like “Become Someone Else’s,” “The World Goes On,” and “Some Dandruff on Your Shoulder” succeed so well. None of the melodic arrangements on I Know What Love Isn’t are going to surprise you—most still host a tightly packed guitar part with swelling strings, accented horns, and springboard keys playing off one another at variable time signatures. But each of the album’s best tracks are the ones in which he rouses himself out of his stupor to craft tidy, upbeat hooks—even despite the lyrics’ downer narrative—and grasps his lyrical hooks into nuance.
That makes the album’s first single, “Erica America,” the most head-scratching moment in I Know What Love Isn’t. That’s not to say it’s a mess of a track—far from it. But the sweeping hooks and lyrical grandeur are ill-suited for Lekman’s skill set and stand out as a white herring, as if he’s exaggerating his artistic self to better serve his personal agenda. When he plays to his strengths, it doesn’t matter who’s heart is broken and who’s there to remedy it.
In a cosmic sense, love is no different from the other scads of aspirations that seldom work out, except that seemingly everyone gets duped by it at least once. In a profile of Hollywood and its similarly optimistic assumptions of glory called “Streets of Sorrow,” the late David Rakoff once mused that, “If the fulfillment of one’s dreams is the only referendum on whether they are beautiful or worth dreaming, then no one would wish for anything. And that would be so much sadder.” So here’s hoping Lekman still lands on his feet. Because even though I Know What Love Isn’t succeeds on its own terms, his talent and voice are too great for the limits of his accomplishments to be dictated by some girl.