If there is such a thing as upbeat melancholia, then Jens Lekman has got it down pat.
By Blake Maddux
The tongue-in-cheek quality of the title of Gothenburg native Jens Lekman’s 2004 debut album When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog was reinforced by its unmistakable reference to The Stooges’ song “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
Lekman may very well have been a fan of Iggy Pop’s proto-punk band from Detroit, but theirs was clearly not the sound that he sought to emulate. His creative influences were clearly cut from the cloth of the quilt that included The Left Banke, Jonathan Richman, Morrissey, Belle and Sebastian, and Stephin Merritt. (My apologies to those of you—including Lekman himself—who have already read that list of comparisons umpteen times.)
When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog and the several EPs before it elicited critical acclaim from, among others, AllMusic’s Tim Sendra, who described the 23-year-old wunderkind as “a lovable goofball” who “seems destined for indie sainthood.”
When new material proved to be slow in coming after When I Said…, his label (Secretly Canadian) put together a generous 17-song collection called Oh You’re So Silent Jens. This hour-long disc assembled the songs that had previously appeared only on EPs or as singles. These included the three about Rocky Dennis, who was the real life individual portrayed by Eric Stoltz in the 1985 film Mask.
Oh You’re So Silent Jens was a revelation to those—me, specifically—who had not yet heard Lekman but were tantalized by Pitchfork’s 8.6 (out of 10) review, in which writer Amy Phillips called the compilation “a marvel of pure songcraft.”
While he was not about to start selling out arenas or playing halftime at the Super Bowl, Lekman was now firmly on the radar of those who were eagerly in search of the next not-so-big but exceedingly talented thing.
His body of work at this point was a horn of plenty, but it would not be until 2007 that Lekman would release his next album. When Night Falls Over Kortedala arrived that October, it was apparent that the time that it took to make it had been well spent. Among those who lavished praise on the album was Slate’s critic at large Stephen Metcalf, who wrote that it “does nothing to diminish his status as pop’s most eminently quotable auteur since Morrissey.”
In the 10 years since Night Falls Over Kortedala, Lekman has released only two more albums: 2012’s I Know What Love Isn’t and Life Will See You Now, which came out on February. (Another EP, An Argument With Myself, appeared in 2011.)
Lekman co-produced his new effort with the English electronic music artist Ewan Pearson. His influence is obvious on songs such as the disco-fied “How We Met, the Long Version,” which samples the 1983 song “Don’t Stop Dancin’” by Jackie Stoudemire.
The use of well-chosen samples, one of which is from Ralph MacDonald’s jazz epic “The Path,” are one of several Lekman trademarks that are firmly in place on Life Will See You Now.
Others are geographical references to Sweden (“Make a beeline past Domkyrkan/Dripping down Västra Hamngatan”), self-referential lyrics (“And later that night I sang ‘You Are The Light’ and we all danced and got drunk”), tales of highly meaningful experiences with platonic friends (“Hotwire the Ferris Wheel,” which features vocals by Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl), and someone named Lisa, who has been popping up in Lekman’s songs as far back as his debut, including one on Night Falls… in which he says she is his “only friend.”
And one can listen to every song on every album released for the remainder of 2017 and probably never hear another first verse like the one from “Evening Prayer”:
At Babak’s school there is a 3D printer,
And he prints out a model of the tumor
That was surgically removed from his back this winter.
In it’s rugged grey plastic, it looks lunar.
He puts the tumor in his breast pocket
As we head out for a beer.
However grim these lyrics might sound, Lekman presents them in such a welcoming fashion that one cannot help but sing along by the time the third or fourth listen comes along If there is such a thing as upbeat melancholia, then this guy has got it down pat.
Life Will See You Now is a fine place to start for newcomers to Lekman. In fact, while I would never trade Oh You’re So Silent Jens as my first encounter, I would highly recommend to all who missed the other albums the first time around or fell out of the loop in the long gaps that separate his most recent releases. Anyone who gives it a spin is unlikely to stop there, and one cannot go wrong with whatever he or she chooses to become immersed in thereafter.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who also contributes to The Somerville Times, DigBoston, Lynn Happens, and various Wicked Local publications on the North Shore. In 2013, he received an MLA from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Prize for Outstanding Thesis in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts