Jens Lekman | I Know What Love Isn’t (Secretly Canadian)

cd jens-lekmanThe album conveys an air of grace and honesty that can catch you completely off guard.


It’s surprising to hear Jens Lekman unlock his diary, even reluctantly. He’s a songwriter who’s never shied away from tapping into the personal—but he’s tended to do it via other people. Lekman is often a passenger, a supporting player, tending to focus on his thinly (or not-so-thinly) disguised friends, family, and chance encounters as vehicles for songs of confusion, elation, the joys of culture and globe-hopping, and impossible love. This, the nomadic, perambulatory Swede’s first LP in nearly five years, is full of his stories. Specifically, it’s about having his heart shattered into a zillion tiny pieces.

To do so, he shelves his usual sample-heavy, orchestrated approach, and favors a less meticulous, breezier set of arrangements. There’s quite a bit of jazzy, ’70s soft rock/“smooth” singer-songwriter influence, which is immediately noticeable in the vague disco of “Some Dandruff on Your Shoulder” and the flutes and Mellotron strings in “The World Moves on.” It’s not dance music, but it’s not exactly an acoustic guitar and voice mope-fest, either, lying somewhere in between—giving it a peculiar charm.

A line from “Erica America”—“I wish I’d never met you / like I wish I’d never tasted wine”—elegantly captures the achingly bittersweet sensation of losing a transformative, lasting love. You wouldn’t trade the experience to eliminate the broken heart, but it doesn’t mean you don’t occasionally wish you could erase it all, Eternal Sunshine-style to ease the pain.

Lush, orchestrated epic “The End of the World Is Bigger than Love” gives way to the album’s title track, an almost jaunty, declarative story song detailing Lekman’s brush with a sham for-citizenship marriage with his platonic-love best friend. It’s the equivalent of what you do when you’re trying to distract yourself. You’re not ready for more, but you’re trying to fill a vacuum with something that’s not neutral-gear wallowing.

Dark horse album standout “She Just Don’t Want To Be With You Anymore” imparts a devastatingly stark realization: Sometimes there’s little overarching external drama; it’s just over, there is no other guy, and you just didn’t cut muster anymore. Lekman sings it in a yearning, dignified voice, over lyrical guitar and sax squeaks, and a blurping, metronomic, sampled beat that sounds like the unavoidable beating of your heart in a silent, dark room.

Largely absent from the record is the kind of bitter sense of victimization that often characterizes breakup records. Sure, Lekman isn’t thrilled, but he’s rarely accusatory. Mostly, he’s wistful and damaged, but contemplative. He’s lost both in love and in the world, but he hasn’t necessarily hardened his heart. This bestows I Know What Love Isn’t an air of grace and honesty that can catch you completely off guard.

In “The World Moves On,” Lekman sings, “You don’t get over a broken heart / you just learn to carry it gracefully.” It’s an observation that exemplifies his post-relationship state of mind, and acts as a thesis statement running throughout the album. The cold reality that most of the world is unaware of your inner turmoil imparts both pain and a strange, comfortable constancy. This balance between ceaseless introspection and evocative, weird vignettes involving the world at large makes for a nuanced, personal, yet un-myopic album that keeps the intensity from becoming gratingly self-centered. There’s a lot of perspective, even amid the navel gazing. A | Mike Rengel

RIYL: Joni Mitchell eight-tracks; Paul Simon’s late ’70s and early ’80s albums; knit beanies; Woody Allen movies when they still had Woody Allen in them

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