Wednesday, August 29, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't

By Steve Jones.

Swedish pop singer-songwriter Jens Lekman returns with I Know What Love Isn't, his third full-length and first album in five years. It will be released on September 3rd via Secretly Canadian.

As an artist writing a very straightforward pop album in 2012, Jens Lekman could not have honed his sound into a much more wonderful album than I Know What Love Isn't. Gone are the big band and movie soundtrack swells of Night Falls Over Kortedala, but the newly stripped down sound is matched with infectious songwriting, affecting and clever lyricism, and crystal clear production. This is an album about songs and words. And the songs are so well-written and the words so penetrating that you'll be singing along before you've even finished hearing the song.

Lekman has always mined the rich vein of relationships for material, but this record is his first true breakup album. Each song deals in some manner with the failure of human communication and interaction, but the way in which each song tackles its subject is varied and, importantly, fun. Lekman's wit is as sharp as ever; this is still the same guy who wrote a song called "Your Arms Around Me" about being rushed to the hospital with massive blood loss. Humor is a tricky and invaluable tool to any writer, and Lekman knows how to wield it in such a way that both tempers and enhances the sentimentality of his stories. When writing about past loves, especially as candidly as Lekman is wont to do, it's easy to come across as mawkish and lose the audience's investment. Humor first serves to entertain and ground the audience, but it's inclusion is also an example of being honest with yourself. Even while caught up in emotions, there is always something funny about a failed relationship, and being able to step back and chuckle at the situation is one way in which people cope. It's nothing laugh-out-loud funny, but this kind of gallows humor about love is enough to make listeners smile at Jens' misfortunes, and maybe even at their own. It might be a bit of an assholish thing to do, but Lekman admits that.

"Excellent songwriting" is easy to write and hard to quantify, but this record is full of it. On my inaugural listen, the tell was how I kept singing along with the tracks despite never having heard them before. If pop is music which strives to appeal to familiarity in new ways, then I Know What Love Isn't masters pop music. It doesn't follow the subversive and progressive direction of Field Music's Plumb, or the experimental and chaotic direction of of Montreal's Paralytic Stalks. It sits firmly in the stands with the sunshine pop of Burt Bacharach and the saxophone-laden ballads of '80s soft rock, but I cannot fault it for that, because it is too damn good at it. The simpler arrangements (when compared to Night Falls Over Kortedala) work in tandem with the intimate songwriting. Piano and guitar form the main instrumental voices, but accompanying strings, sax, flutes, and other colors flesh out the songs where they are needed. The space in these songs is not wasted nor unnecessary.

After a short solo piano introduction (the melody of which is reprised in full on the last track, "Every Little Hair Knows Your Name"), "Erica America" leads the album with Lekman's strongest Bacharach emulation to date, with its backup female vocals in the chorus, perfectly placed strings, and relaxed performance. However, it's the saxophone solo in the last half which really warms me to the track. Lekman's wry and intimate poetry also shines with lines such as "summer is exhausting me with its exhaust fumes and empty promises / and promises of no more empty promises," and "I wish I’d never tasted wine / nor tasted it from lips that weren’t mine." The next track, "Become Someone Else's," matches a bouncy piano melody with one of my favorite lines in the entire album, "sleeping on my arm till it becomes someone else's." It's a clever twist on the song's title that relates the feeling of being alone at night to the also all-too-human experience of waking up with pins and needles in one's arm.

Like any good breakup record, I Know What Love Isn't matches mirth with melancholy, and, although its overall sound leans towards the jubilant end of the spectrum (with appropriate amounts of lyrical dissonance), the album's more subdued moments are its most affecting. The slightly out-of-tune piano on "She Just Don't Want to be with You," circles wistfully as Jens laments the blunt end of a relationship. The coarse grammar of the title and refrain reflects the harshness of being told something is over, and it adds the small sad smile that one wears in this kind of situation. Choosing to end the album on its most depressing sentiment, Lekman uses only his voice and guitar on the closing "Every Little Hair Knows Your Name," which is all about trying to get over someone without succeeding. Lekman's thoughts echo both the cosmic reflections ("every cell in this body has been replaced since I last saw you") and small distractions ("I started working out when we broke up") that accompany heartache.

So as not to end this review on too depressing a note, my favorite track is "The World Moves On." A slightly Caribbean beat brings levity to a song about watching wildfires engulf Australia, as Jens is forced to deal with the problems he keeps making for himself. It's the funniest song on the album, with too many great lines to list, but I particularly like the chorus, "You don't get over a broken heart / You just learn to carry it gracefully." This song and the track "The End of the World is Bigger than Love" communicate that the world keeps moving despite what any one person is going through, which can be both a comforting and disheartening fact, but a fact nevertheless. The title track "I Know What Love Isn't" beams sunshine down on the sentiment that we are all doomed to have failed relationships until we find one that works out. There are an infinite number of ways to get love wrong, and we are all subject to them. There's camaraderie in that.

I can't fault much on I Know What Love Isn't. From a production standpoint, it's a step back, but Jens has strengthened his songwriting chops more than enough to compensate. It's the saddest album he's written, but he's a good enough writer to prevent it from becoming maudlin. It's alternately light, fun pop and wry, introspective pop. It's full of the kind of poised, eloquent awareness that we all wish we had. It's a breakup album that even people in loving, satisfying relationships should be able to appreciate.

Score: Lite 9

You can stream the entire album over at The Quietus.

(Steve Jones wants to help Jens figure out what love is. If you have any leads, send them to his Twitter @vestenet.)

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