The indie prodigy takes a winding path to become the beloved journeyman, but only if he’s lucky and dedicated.
Ten years ago, the Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman was 26 and releasing the universally acclaimed Night Falls Over Kortedala. “Indie darling” may seem like a pejorative, but “darling” as it applied to Lekman’s wry, obsessively specific love songs still rings as a term of endearment. At the time, he’d been a hit on Swedish radio and was crossing over to American audiences with songs about perpetrating an awkward relationship ruse, failing to teach a younger sister life lessons and finding the comforts of love in the process of accidentally severing your finger. His work has never been senselessly adorable, but Lekman sometimes gigs as a wedding performer for crying out loud; all-out earnestness is a powerful variable in his artistic equation.
But breakout albums can be both launchpads and roadblocks, especially for those artists whose stars rose just before streaming music warped the shape and stability of independent music careers. In the intervening years, Lekman’s rate of album production slowed. He released I Know What Love Isn’t, a multi-angled study of heartbreak that maintained his sophisticated lyricism, in 2012. Yet, Lekman wrote recently that staging and re-staging the album’s melancholy night after night and its relatively modest reception tested his conviction for being an international touring artist.
Now, after another nearly five-year hiatus from LPs, as well as a writing project for which he recorded and released a song every week for all of 2015, Lekman is back with Life Will See You Now. Call it a more adult record if you will, but as a collection of music it’s beautifully unburdened. No longer do the songs contain the same sense of neatness that have long made Lekman’s best lines zip and pop in their sheer cleverness. Rather, the soundscapes now match his romantic notions and his words unfold as unresolved anecdotes more than crisp punchlines.
They sweep; they blush; they ramble; they possess a boldly nonchalant mix of acoustic and digital orchestration. For a moment, a track becomes the kitschiest slice of disco or sample-heavy world music, but move your ear to a different level of the recording, and you’ll hear Lekman’s fingers brushing across classical guitar strings. Ewan Pearson (who’s produced M83 and The Chemical Brothers) certainly deserves credit for this album that treats genre-bending with a real sense of play and joy.
“Our First Fight” starts out sounding like a latter-day Paul Simon short story song. “An Evening Prayer,” a tune about 3D-printed replica of a tumor, sounds fit for Studio 54 circa 1979. The sensual “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” is accelerated and anchored by a writhing calypso beat. “How Can I Tell Him” is a reverb-drenched portrait of longing with the pristine piano and mandolin clinks of Lekman’s first big song, “Black Cab.”
As for how they’ll sound when Lekman comes to Portland’s Revolutionary Hall this Friday (tickets available here), he’s touring the album with an all-Swedish trio of bass, drums, and keys to recreate its adventurous sonics.
The record may show impressive growth for Lekman the musician, but he’s always a songwriter first, in spirit and in our reception of him. The 10 tracks of Life Will See You Now are all affixed with clear lyrical premises and settings, which makes Lekman feel forever ambitious every time he releases a new song, no matter how musically simple.
First and last in the highlight reel of lyrical flourishes has to be the conclusion of “Our First Fight,” which chronicles a young couple learning to argue. At dinner after the falling out, Lekman sets up the resolution to the fight: “And you mouth out ‘I love you’ the way a parent spells out ice cream.” Not only is it ear-catching, but it sends the listener’s mind racing to make sense of it. Then, here comes Lekman with the other half of the line: “I-l-o-v-e-y-o-u like there’s kids in the room.” It’s a beautiful marriage of commonplace images that’s deeply figurative and physical in the same moment.
Perhaps the best metaphor for how Lekman has aged since his breakout record ten years ago lives in his song “Wedding In Finistère.” The Jens character in the song is playing the titular wedding when he encounters the bride smoking alone. How does she feel about her big day, he asks eventually.
“Like the five-year-old watching the 10-year-olds shoplifting, like the 10-year-old watching the 15-year-olds french kissing, like the 15-year-old watching the 20-year-olds chain-smoking, like the 20-year-old watching the 30-year-olds vanishing.”
It’s possible the Jens Lekman who won so much acclaim and affection as young artist never imagined himself in his mid-thirties, making a sexy-sounding album that’s also about how humans need each other. That he never conceived of what it would be like to have sick friends as in “Evening Prayer,” or to want to connect with people in “How Can I Tell Him” more than you’re interested in explaining the ways you can’t.
Life Will See You Now is a touching record that’s also ready to be touched.
– Chance Solem-Pfeifer