Somewhere in New Jersey last month, in the midst of a long car trip, I confronted a great mystery: What the hell is Jens Lekman doing on my iPod?
It wasn’t a matter of taste. He had every right to occupy his 80mb on a machine not known for its integrity or exclusiveness. It’s just that he’d been off my radar for at least four years, languishing in an iTunes ghost town between Jefferson Airplane and Jethro Tull. So there must have been a moment before the trip when I browsed the library and said to myself, “hey, he used to be fun. Why not?”
But I have no recollection of Jens making the iPod cut. As someone who generally treats the transferring process with neurotic terror, I should remember. Was the decision unconscious? An accident? Magic? Would it be too brazen to suggest that God Himself, for reasons a simple human could never intuit, had seen fit to confront me on I-95 with Oh, You’re So Silent Jens, Lekman’s 2005 EP compilation?
Fine, no God or magic. Lekman probably got there by accident. Regardless, it rekindled a fascination that had dissipated and dissolved all those years before. I hit play, let it all sink in, and carefully divided my thoughts on Lekman into three categories: the good, the bad, and the weird.
Here are the Lekman basics: He’s Swedish, he sings in English and he belongs to the Secretly Canadian label. (How about that for globalization? It’s almost like the world is metaphorically flat. Someone should write a book on that.) He’s 30 years old at the moment, and he hasn’t released anything on his own since 2007. Before that, he had two albums—the second, Night Falls Over Kortedala, is widely considered his best work—a lot of EPs and the compilation mentioned above. At long last, a new EP called An Argument With Myself is slated for a September release.
The best thing about Lekman is his deft touch with melody. The older I get, the less tolerance I have for artists who can’t function melodically. It’s my personal sine qua non, and I’m no longer ashamed. I can finally reject the wastelands of experimental musicians who rely on tricks to disguise the cold hard fact that they can’t write a tune. I won’t be intimated by the music snobs—the chubby cherubs in hoods and black frames, the skinny bearded cranks who haven’t smiled since sixth grade and who everyone you hate calls a ‘genius’—and their eclectic knowledge. You can’t judge me, you scowling bastards! Tom Petty has some good songs!
When it comes to melody, you’ve either got it or you don’t. I can’t think of a single musician who found the touch in the middle of a career. Some bands are able to fake it for a little while, but eventually people will realize the truth and admit that the Fiery Furnaces were never very good.
Lekman has the gift. Song after song delivers the goods, catchy hooks mingling with his deep, accented delivery, gluing itself to the receptive insides of your head. He’s sort of like Morrissey and Stuart Murdoch in that regard, though you wouldn’t want to stretch those comparisons too far.
And then you have the lyrics. I’ll warn you now: they’ll go in all three sections—good, bad, and weird. Let’s start at the peak.
The song of record is “Maple Leaves.” It’s about a love dispute between the singer and a girl, which I’m starting to notice is a pretty common theme in music. Everything is pretty pleasant, if unremarkable, until you reach the chorus:
She said it was all make believe
But I thought she said ‘maple leaves’
The first time I heard those words, I think I gasped. Do people gasp anymore? I know we’ve largely stopped fainting, but if people still gasp, I definitely gasped. Maybe it’s because of the excellent wordplay, or the humor, or the simple, wonderful way it hints at the chasm separating Jens and his girl, or how it can be read as a commentary on disparate worldviews; philosophical detachment versus an earthy love of experience. While she’s prattling on about constructs of reality, Lekman is thinking of the natural, symmetrical beauty of a maple leaf. Gorgeous.
The feeling I had when I first encountered the line reminded me of another revelatory lyrical experience. It was probably my tenth or eleventh time listening to Belle & Sebastian’s “The State I’m In” before I picked this one up, but it hit all the same nerves:
And so I gave myself to God
There was a pregnant pause before He said okay…
Like Lekman’s maple leaves, the words contain paradoxical layers. They’re funny, but almost painfully sad, like a Wes Anderson film condensed into a musical couplet.
Like Anderson, Lekman has his share of quirky mannerisms. When they’re good, they’re really good, like in “You are the Light (By Which I Travel Into This and That).” Blaring horns fire the opening salvo, framing the terrific first line:
Yeah, I got busted
So I used my one phone call
To dedicate a song to you on the radio
I saw Lekman live at the Mercury Lounge in the summer of 2006. I even wrote about his performance, and the review, unfortunately, is still online. Here was my description of Lekman:
Wearing jeans and a pink sweater with a parrot decal, Lekman came on with his acoustic guitar, soaking in the applause. Thin and of medium-height, his dirty blond hair curls in tufts and sits atop a receding hairline. His eyes are his most compelling feature, noticeably blue even from the darkened audience.
Ignore, if you will, the ‘compelling’ eyes and focus on the clothing. A pink sweater with a parrot decal? Come on, Jens!
That single sartorial choice gets to the heart of my problem with Lekman; he’s precious beyond belief. He very much belongs to the self-centered, cutesie-tootsie indie-pop movement whose practitioners seem to be consciously transforming themselves into adorable harmless little teddy bears with good hearts and complex emotions. A little bit of that sugar-sweetness is tolerable, but an overdose is enough to make you vomit all over a Math and Physics Club album.
During the Mercury Lounge show, he sang one song in gibberish Finnish, covered a Japanese-techno hit, and played a West African instrument called a karimba. He also encouraged audience participation, inviting everyone to sing backup on a number of his songs. Later, he passed around a bunch of photos he found in a park in Copenhagen.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, though, was when he started talking about his own career. Earlier that year, he implied that it might soon come to an end (he was 25 at the time), and the theme returned between songs in New York when he told us he was bored with his normal style. “I can now play most instruments,” he said. “It all becomes the same.”
Even then, when I was a much less grumpy human, the words struck me as offensive. All the same? Who does this guy think he is? Maybe I misinterpreted him, but it sounded an awful lot like he vastly overestimated his accomplishments, like he had no more room to explore. The world begs to differ, sir. You don’t have to look far to find brilliant singer/songwriters whose careers have ranged into old age, and who continually discover new variety and depth within their own style. For a 25-year-old in a parrot sweater to insinuate that he’d reached some kind of artistic peak was irritating.
And before we leave ‘the bad,’ I’d like to return to his lyrics. For every moment of splendor, there’s a moment of laziness or calculation. To witness the former, let’s revisit the start of “Maple Leaves.”
It’s autumn in Gothenburg
I’m walking home to my suburb
Rain falls hard on the city
on every homeless kitty
It’s almost like he knew he had the awesome chorus up his sleeve, and decided the rest didn’t matter. “Homeless kitty” has a rightful place in the annals of all-time terrible lyrics, right next to Neil Diamond’s infamous, “no one heard at all, not even the chair.”
And what about “Someone to Share My Life With,” which is about as syrupy as songs come? After mentioning all the types of girls he doesn’t want, Jens brings it back to simplicity. “I just want someone to share my life with,” he croons. “And that someone could be you.”
How could the guy who wrote “Maple Leaves” release garbage like that? Here’s how—it’s a cynical attempt to seduce an immature female audience. He knows the power of a foreign artist (we all know women love accents; it’s a phenomenon that’s infuriating until you visit a foreign country and become the beneficiary, at which point it seems pretty reasonable) telling a girl—and don’t forget, it could be you!—that he wants to mate for life. You can practically hear the hearts of teenage girls melting, and it sounds like when you pour a jar of salsa into a funnel.
Maybe it’s wrong to blame an otherwise talented guy for composing a saccharine love song, but I’m going to do it anyway. He’s like the hated charmer in college playing a guitar under a tree with a horde of women surrounding him. Get that guy out of here! This is private property!
One of Lekman’s most entertaining songs is “Julie.” Its greatness is hampered a bit by the fact that it sounds exactly like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia,” but if you can get by that, there’s a good time to be had. Again, we’re dealing with a guy/girl scenario, and it begins with a very funny lyric about buying a wedding ring from a vending machine. Julie is thinking about leaving, and then, out of left field, Lekman unleashes a stanza straight from a nightmare:
Being with you can be very fatal
Somehow we forget to pray for the angels
Then the angels make sure that our hearts are devoured
Make us jump from the Eiffel Tower
The revenge of an un-worshipped deity amidst the jangle of an upbeat melody? Terrifying! The startling images could be lifted from the phobic diary of an obsessive-compulsive, and the contrast with the music makes you rewind. Did he just say that?
He did, and it’s fantastic. Because here’s the secret about Lekman: He’s at his best when he reveals his odd inner life. That’s when his songwriting goes from generic to unique, and that’s when he grabs your attention.
My personal favorite is “Black Cab.” The full narrative is as follows: Lekman is silent and sullen to his friends at a party, ruining the atmosphere. He leaves, but can’t decide if he should go home, so he hires a black cab and tells the driver to shut up and drive anywhere.
That’s it. The chorus is just the title, extended and repeated—at two words, it’s the greatest short refrain since Rusted Root managed to use no discernible words in “Send Me On My Way.” And if you haven’t heard “Black Cab,” you have to believe me: It’s an honest-to-god treasure. It’s funny, personal, and true. There’s no girl, there’s no love. There’s just a guy owning up to himself, to his own weaknesses and the reality he’ll have to face in the morning. The insouciance, which hurts him lyrically at times, is a great asset here. We’ve all been there, on the dark ride home, when the affectations and artifice of the night seem like a burden, and the only thing you can possibly think is, “What the hell am I doing?”
And that’s the greatness of Jens Lekman. When he’s not disguising himself as a harmless romantic or trying to impress you with his complexity, the layers are stripped and you see the naked flaws of a smart, talented guy. This is the kind of big personality, I do not doubt, who could ruin a party with a resounding, moody silence. This is a person whose intelligence has a cunning side that can turn ugly. If he were your friend in real life, he’d probably be the unpredictable type who hurt your feelings as much as he lifted you up. Good intentions are forever fading into unchangeable nature, and those flashes of honesty are Lekman at his best.
So good riddance, hiatus, and welcome back Jens. Stay silent for too long, and anyone can be forgotten. It shouldn’t take an iPod accident to hear something so strange and brilliant.
Shane Ryan lives in North Carolina. He also writes for Grantland.com and Tobacco Road Blues, and you can follow him on twitter at @TobaccoRdBlues.