The Jens Lekman Method
Closure after an emotional setback is different for everybody. For Jens Lekman, it doesn’t really exist.
Unlike the rest of Lekman’s more than 10 years worth of releases, which have almost strictly been EPs or compilations of scattered recordings, I Know What Love Isn’t is his first thematically concrete album. The fallout after the failure of a citizenship-based marriage – which Lekman told Pitchfork was the “worst break-up” he’s ever endured – is what fueled the album to materialize, and it taught him a lesson in emotional baggage along the way.
“I started out writing horrible songs about breakups and heartbreak. And I felt like, this is disgusting, I don’t want to write these songs,” Lekman recalls. “I tried to write something completely different, and in that process I wrote the songs for the Argument with Myself EP. And I tried to write the other songs like that too, where I just wrote to see what would happen, with not a theme or an idea for a song in mind. But eventually those songs would just lead me back to the breakup anyway, so it was really like a circle.”
Failures and misunderstandings, social ineptness and even the giggly greatness of love are Lekman’s typical storytelling specialties. But on I Know What Love Isn’t he is, albeit inadvertently, at his most focused. The circular theme became the centerpiece of the album.
“It’s not something I had in mind when I wrote it, but I like the idea of [the album] sort of replicating the emotions that you go through [after a breakup], where you are in this horrible despair for a while,” he explains. “And then maybe late at night you go out with a friend and you forget all about it…This type of feeling like, oh, it doesn’t matter, it’s fine, I have my best friend here, we’re out driving around in the city. I feel like I get it all. I’m over it. Everything is fine now. Then you wake up the next day in the same state that you were the morning before. [The album] sort of replicates that feeling too, and I like that.”
A lone tinkering piano of “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name” opens the album, and an acoustic guitar version accompanied by Lekman singing quite subtly incredibly sullen lines about his misery closes it out. In the middle there are some distractions from his melancholy that serve the same purpose of those post-breakup outings. They’re as real as any heartbreak, but fleeting, and consistently trumped in solitude.
Sonically the album is less layered, less lustrous than Lekman’s previous work. The grandiose sounds of complete string sections, blaring horns and sweeping crescendos of 2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala are toned down. The sound is smoothed over; it’s as spherical as the lyrical content is circular. There are ups and downs in each song, of course, but they’re usually small, little rivets of transition marked by a harder hit of the tambourine or a sly introduction of a single flute.
This scaled-down style affords the album a certain desolate moodiness, even on the more upbeat numbers, like “Become Someone Else’s.” Lekman manages to turn the seemingly fortunate dilemma of having too many suitors into something sad, despite the nod-worthy tempo. Instead of reveling in her vast selection, Lekman implies the subject, Jenny, is made lonely by in her noncommittal nature. It stands alone as the only song not dripping with Lekman’s tears, though his thinking in its creation was still likely affected.
The rest illuminates the phases of closure. Lekman wallows with regret for ever meeting his former mate in the chiming, Spanish guitar tinged “Erica America,” and expresses utter sadness in “She Just Doesn’t Want to be with You Anymore.” He reminisces on “Some Dandruff on Your Shoulder,” a poppy tune that sounds most like what we’ve come to expect from Lekman than any other, and seemingly pinpoints a moment when he should have seen his relationship’s demise coming. On the bare and quiet acoustic “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots,” after admitting he’s been stuck in the muck of sad for two years, Lekman’s sings, “In my next dream I want a pair of cowboy boots/ The kind of that walks the straightest and the most narrow route/ Anywhere but back to you.”
“The World Moves On” is lyrically a climax for Lekman, in which he finds a turning point: “You don’t ever get over a broken heart/ You just learn to carry it gracefully.” The song is chipper, complete with finger-snaps. Lekman’s chin is up and out of the despair; the reflection and hindsight ready him to move forward.
“The line deals with our idea of closure…I think it’s a bit of a modern invention, this idea that all of the sudden everything will be good again,” Lekman says. “I think that it’s something we seem to expect for some reason. It’s almost like you’re not permitted to grieve after a certain amount of time…I watched this show on British TV where this famous Swedish singer from the ’80s came out and started talking about this divorce that she went through 10 years ago, and she broke into tears. And everyone started writing these angry letters to the newspaper saying how dare she be upset about something that happened 10 years ago when she’s happily married now. It’s almost like we’re not permitted to grieve after a certain amount of time, like you’re supposed to get over things. And I don’t think it works like that.”
One of the first songs Lekman wrote for I Know What Love Isn’t was “The End of the World is Bigger Than Love.” It promotes a similar sentiment as “The World Moves On;” an effort in endurance, an extension of Lekman’s brand of moving on.
“I was watching a BBC docudrama called Threads from 1984 which deals with the little…town of Sheffield in the UK being hit by a nuclear bomb,” Lekman says of the song’s origin. “It’s an extremely bleak and depressing picture of nuclear war, made in the basement when that was actually a possibility. I watched that with a friend of mine and I wasn’t at a very good point in my life, and somehow felt strangely comforted by it. I wrote to her afterward and said thank you for showing me that. I have no idea why I feel appeased by that. And she said, ‘Well, of course. The end of the world is bigger than love.’ And I thought that was a beautiful line.”
The circular motif, however, somewhat implies passivism. It does seem that Lekman is the kind to fight his feelings only briefly before giving in, though clearly his ability to cope is sturdy. But while he’s pretty soft-spoken and possesses the demeanor (and tells the life stories) of a pacifist, he’s not without gall. His guts might be a little more tender than most, but they’re not useless – even when it comes to declaring his adoration for a celebrity. When Kirsten Dunst was filming Melancholia in Lekman’s town of Gothenburg, Sweden a couple years ago, he performed a tribute of sorts about his quest to find her. (He didn’t, by the way.)
“The idea of Kirsten was more like…” he sighs. “I think when I tell the story about the song at the show I talk about reading that she likes my music in a newspaper once. And trying really hard to not get impressed by that, because I thought, you know, I’m not going to be impressed by some famous person liking my music. That doesn’t matter. And then realizing that it was creeping up on me anyways – feeling like I finally made it, I finally got the attention of someone who is something. And I guess in a way that stems from growing up in this shitty little suburb outside of the city, next to a potato chip factory looming over my head like some sort of tombstone over my future and destiny. So I don’t know too much about Kirsten Dunst, but for some reason her saying that she liked my music, for some reason it meant something for me. …It probably stems from my background and where I grew up.”
Lekman admits that he doesn’t know what he would have done if he’d really found Dunst. (He also confessed to liking her teen-targeted cheerleading flick Bring it On.)
Further evidence of Lekman’s fortitude is found in escaping the dead end of his childhood home. Instead of sticking around, he left for the city to attend art school, where he says his upbringing had him feeling a little at odds with his upper-middleclass peers. But he simply wasn’t going to work at the factory.
“It was the sentiment that the potato chip factory, which was the big industry in that suburb, it sort of gave you the promise that you will get a job – at the factory. ‘Don’t worry, you will get a job,’” he says as if mimicking his elders. “But there was also the feeling that this is the only job that you will ever get. And I know a lot of my friends who are working at that potato chip factory. There was a bit of a feeling, like because it was a very, not a very good neighborhood, people really had that feeling, like I’m never going to become anything.”
In some ways, Lekman’s idea of closure – that there really is none, and instead you pile your pain on top of the rest and trudge on – is quite depressing. It suggests pain remains under the skin permanently, and could be more often subdued than not but will still painfully break through to the surface sometime. But Lekman’s filter has always been rose-colored, so to consider his type of closure discouraging would be inaccurate. He isn’t saddled by his sorrows. Instead, he finds constructive uses for them.
He pits the supposed strangeness of his citizenship marriage against a more typical romantic behavior in “I Know What Love Isn’t,” the sunny second-to-last song of the LP: “Hey do you want to go see a band?/ No I hate bands/ It’s always packed with men spooning their girlfriends/ Clutching their hands as if they let go/ Their feet would lift from the ground and descend/ I don’t know what love is/ But I know what it isn’t.”
Lekman does close with “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name,” though, and it is definitely heart-wrenching. But that’s simply another facet of his coping – accepting everything. Making I Know What Love Isn’t did present the option to subscribe to a more traditional finale though.
“Something that was kind of funny [was that] in the beginning, people would ask me if [writing the LP] helped me,” Lekman says. “And I would just laugh and say that’s exactly what the album is not about. Then…when people started bringing these preview copies of the album to the interviews and they would put it on the table, I would look at this record and [realize] that all those feelings and all that time, it’s on this little piece of plastic between us. And I can just leave it and move on.”
Lekman adds that the process was therapeutic, but it still seems likely that this isn’t the last mention of his marriage woes. There’s every reason to believe 10 years from now, he’ll be crying about it on a British TV show.
Photo by Kristin Lidell.