For approximately two days in 2006, we almost lost our young Jens. I’m referring of course to that whole kerfuffle where out of sheer exhaustion Lekman actually decided to eschew this silly music thing and get a real job working in, of all places, a bingo hall. I think we should all be thanking our respective Higher Power right now that his hiatus was brief, because the album he would eventually make, the stunning Night Falls over Kortedala, is among the best of the year.
Not that we should be surprised, really. A quick shuffle through the Lekman back catalog reveals an exciting songwriter in his nascence, on the cusp of a great birth but not quite there yet (see 2005’s occasionally brilliant but shaggy Oh You’re So Silent, Jens). In this respect, at least, Night Falls over Kortedala feels like a swinging coming out party. The gorgeous opening swell of strings and timpani on “And I Remember Every Kiss” is instant proof, sampling Enoch Light’s “Theme From Sandpebbles” (Avalanches fans will recognize this one immediately) so that the effect here is almost like we’re embarking on a Busby Berkeley-directed tour through the album’s namesake. Musically of course, this is precisely what we are doing.
Kortedala is a residential district in northeast Gothenburg that is, according to Lekman himself who lives there, “a depressing suburban hell” where ’50s kitsch, tropicalia, Motown, and apparently theme music for ’70s television all fuse into a sort of watered-down pop pastiche that, strangely, informs this album even as it attempts to divorce itself from it. As much as Lekman tries, Kortedala never leaves Kortedala except during “Friday Night at the Drive-in Bingo,” and there it’s only a short bus ride into the country. Like all of us who grew up in communities we quickly learned to disdain, he understands that simply removing them from our hearts is far harder than we could ever possibly imagine. As variable as the subjects are on this album, this essentially is its core.
A large part of Lekman’s gift as a songwriter has always been his understanding of pop and what makes it precious. We’ve seen flashes of this on previous releases (see the Rocky Dennis in Heaven and Maple Leaves EPs), but on Kortedala there seems to be a special polish that goes far beyond anything he has achieved before. “The Opposite of Hallelujah” is pure pop buffed to a shine, using live strings over a backbeat virtually born for handclapping. Beneath the sugar, though, lies some serious psychological gore — i.e. depression, disconnection, and how horribly incommunicable these feelings often are, even to those we love and trust.
This kind of emphatic humanity pops up all over Kortedala. “A Postcard to Nina” pairs a subtle Motown vibe with a terrific subversion of standard love song dogma — the eponymous “Nina” here actually turning out to be a lesbian who uses our Jens to pose as a boyfriend for her old-fashioned Catholic father. On the dreamy “Shirin,” Lekman analogizes a haircut to a love affair (which the cover of the album nicely illustrates), and “Kanske Ar Jag Kar I Dig” frames the perennial theme of awkward pre-adolescent love inside a young Stevie Wonder-inspired doo-wop, and I quote: “The best way to touch your heart is to make an ass of myself.” Of all the post-modern romantics that currently dominate indie rock, Kortedala (and these three songs in particular) goes far in establishing Lekman as the best of them.
It’s interesting that Night Falls over Kortedala should arrive the same year as the National’s Boxer, because each seems to form the perfect negative for the other. Whereas Boxer is dark, urban, and in many ways dislocated from any specific space, Kortedala is the total inverse: sunny, suburban, and deeply rooted in the community from which it was birthed. And yet as palpable as the album’s connection to Kortedala is, what we hear is defined not by Lekman’s engagement of home, but by his trying to escape it. Rarely, if ever, are details of this album’s namesake even mentioned in the lyrics. Love lost, love regained, and love shattered again are the topics of the day here, yet all feel insulated inside this terrible, wonderful little bubble that is northeast Gothenburg. I’ve never been to this place in my life, but listening to the album can’t be too far off from visiting. Unlike Jens, though, I feel no desire to leave anytime soon.