Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t
Secretly Canadian 2012
I’m probably not quite with it to give Jens Lekman his dues, and for that I thank you, future run-ins with spellchecker, but anyway: of love songs, Lekman pointed I Know What Love Isn’t to break-ups, and speaking to Pitchfork claimed that a record centred around one is made by accepting, hand in hand with its listener, the pain of it all. Up until now, this is hardly the man we’ve known; the You’re So Silent Jens laughed, played maudlin piano trilogies about Rocky Dennis, and then dedicated retro dance songs to himself; the love-song aspect was there, but driving backseat to the witticisms and showy moments. Until now, Lekman has been the perfect performer and the ideal entertainer, to the point where he even pronounced “father” as “fadduh,” as if he was bringing up Camp Granada’s easy-humour on the indie spectrum. What makes I Know What Love Isn’t feel different is that the laughs reveal the romantic twangs a little after, like the joke that dies out to sad sighs; instead of standing by his Stephin Merritt, eye-rolling shtick, Lekman has made an album of sad love prophecies, focusing on the story of two people rather than the remarks of one. “The World Moves On,” his six minute dance anthem- given all its fun rock conventions- isn’t all that fun when you realise it’s genuinely about the world moving on.
What strikes boldest, then, is that there’s nothing particularly weird about Lekman’s music when it’s at its sincerest; these songs are those of a storyteller truly documenting, as well as he can, what has happened; “I Know What Love Isn’t,” the fullest, most conventional Lekman song to date, is based on his experiences of almost proposing to his friend for citizenship and completely non-romantic ideals. And it sums up exactly what I Know What Love Isn’t- I’m talking album, here- amounts to; the serious perspective of Lekman channelled, as per usual, through funny conversations (“do you wanna go see a band? / no I hate bands, it’s always full of men spooning their girlfriends?”) and musical arrangements that sound as funny. Here comes the flute solo! And so Lekman continues to borrow from his own long tradition- that it’s easy to laugh a problem off- but on what he considers to be his first real “album,” he also decides to examine it.
I Know What Love Isn’t is focused on what’s quixotic in the process of elimination- what makes Lekman tick, at this point, is writing big, romantic arrangements and having lines that demarcate: “let’s get married for the citizenship / I’ve always liked the idea of a relationship that doesn’t lie about it’s intentions,” he sings on the title track while it flourishes- the bravado of guitar smacking around verses and choruses, the violin swells and, yes, the flute solos, all celebrating little more than Lekman’s rational peace of mind. Or maybe I Know What Love Isn’t mourns the death of Jens Lekman the romanticist? Apparently, it’s the exact same guy, but using the same tools- marriage, violin swells- as sombre facts of life.
The album is the result of its own thought process, and ultimately becomes the most revealing thing Lekman has written, even if it is his most succinct record. Lines seem less about the big laugh, even in similar arrangements- “Erica America,” for instance, feels sad more than anything, and so a quiet line like “Sinatra had his shit figured out, I guess” is genuinely a quiet line. That’s something- I Know What Love Isn’t doesn’t try to be funny, because at times it really isn’t (a line from the same song: “Erica America, I wish I’d never met you / like I wish I’d never tasted this cheap wine”), and because, ultimately, the album isn’t constructed that way. Lekman isn’t necessarily an entertainer here: he’s a man of music blooming in corners, with the littlest of piano performances on “Become Someone Else’s” or an honest-to-god singer-songwriter acoustic song elsewhere on “I Want a Pair of Cowboy’s Boots.” You can say what you want- it’s the same old Lekman, but only ten songs- but I know different.
And ultimately, a lot of I Know What Love Isn’t is flawed. “The End Of The World is Bigger Than Love” can be dull, and a slight feint at that; it suggests that the end of the world even factors in to Lekman’s mind on album entirely dedicated to love and the loss of love. “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” is a conversation first and a song later, so dedicated is it to Lekman’s newfound love of craft. But there’s something in this clunky, structural record that suggests a musician uncaring of where his career peak was or what even defines him anymore. At some point, there’s a musician writing what he believes to be an honest, appropriate break-up album. One that sticks with you quite morosely, that doesn’t look for the upside, particularly, but doesn’t shy away from the serious hilarity of the woman who doesn’t want to be with you but doesn’t actually have anyone else in mind. By peeling away all of love’s non-events, I Know What Love Isn’t is a tragicomedy, not particularly in one mind about what it is, but knowing it’s sort of awful. And so I’m probably in no state to understand Lekman’s album, and probably in the perfect state to overrate it, but as a conventional rock record, and an attempt at the immaculate indie Lekman has been striving to make, this feels right for him: finally, a record he made even in sad and happy. Sinatra may have had his shit worked out, but Jens doesn’t. Or, maybe that, again, is the point. He does, and it turns out his shit isn’t at all romantic.