Jens Lekman, ‘I Know What Love Isn’t’ – Album Review
For an artist who goes so far out of his way to avoid confrontation, Swedish crooner Jens Lekman makes remarkably divisive music. Since 2004’s ‘When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog,’ Lekman has been serenading listeners with his string-laced melodies and self-deprecating humor. He’s the sort of performer that fans instinctively call by first name, as if he were a lifelong friend, but who detractors tend to write off as overly twee. Lekman’s new record, ‘I Know What Love Isn’t,’ likely won’t gain him many new converts, but longtime followers will be happy to know that not much has changed in the five years since Lekman’s last proper LP, or since he came on the scene in the first place.
‘I Know What Love Isn’t’ is a less idiosyncratic affair than last year’s ‘An Argument With Myself’ EP, and it’s more thematically even than his career-best 2007 effort ‘Night Falls Over Kortedala.’ A break-up record through and through, ‘I Know What Love Isn’t’ starts and ends with versions of the somber ‘Every Little Hair Knows Your Name.’ The track reinforces Lekman’s love affair with hair-based lyrics (see also: ‘Shirin’ and ‘Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder’) and places a morose air over the songs in between. While Lekman has always made melancholic music, ‘Every Little Hair Knows Your Name’ shows little of Lekman’s characteristic humor, as he sings gently over softly strummed guitar.
While Lekman is perfectly capable of writing overtly sad songs, he’s at his best when he’s working under the conventions of pop songcraft. ‘Erica America’ is such a track, with a broad melody and lyrics that showcase Lekman’s ability to couple witticisms with emotional heft. “I wish I’d never met you / Like I never tasted wine / Or tasted it from lips that weren’t mine,” sings Lekman, in typically romantic fashion. The track also showcases Lekman’s continued non-ironic love of schmaltz, with a sax solo that would make Steely Dan blush. While Jens Lekman has always gravitated toward sounds that are thought of as “uncool,” ‘Erica America’ may take the cake when it comes to embracing yacht-rock conventions.
The best song on ‘I Know What Love Isn’t’ is also one that’s been floating around for the longest. Released way back in 2010, ‘The End Of the World Is Bigger Than Love’ offers a series of examples of things more important than the literal end of the world, all the while sounding like the narrator doesn’t quite believe his own advice. To put it into perspective, Lekman begins to list all of the things the apocalypse is bigger than — among them the stock market, the plume of a geyser and “the spider floating in your cider.” It’s the sort of whimsey Lekman brings to his best tracks, and it serves as an album highlight, even if we’ve heard it many times before.
At 10 tracks, ‘I Know What Love Isn’t’ is being billed as a full album, but it it still feels slight. Lekman is best as a storyteller, and his live shows feature perfectly wry spoken-word setups that lead into his tales of woe. Like Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman, who has been doing his wounded-troubadour act for more than three decades, Lekman has reached a point where the songs themselves have become almost incidental. We’re getting the whole package — take it or leave it — and, while ‘I Know What Love Isn’t’ doesn’t contain Lekman’s best work, it’s still nice to spend time with the guy when we get the chance.