(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #93 – released September 4, 2012)
Track listing: Every Little Hair Knows Your Name / Erica America / Become Someone Else’s / Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder / She Just Don’t Want To Be With You Anymore / I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots / The World Moves On / The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love / I Know What Love Isn’t / Every Little Hair Knows Your Name
In 2007, I named Jen Lekman’s third album, Night Falls Over Kortedala my favorite of that year, writing, “His droopy baritone and lovably dorky demeanor always positioned this young Swede as the prospective heir apparent to Jonathan Richman, Morrissey and Stephin Merritt; the crucial advance he makes on his third album confirms it.” With such oddball, ultra-specific scenarios like posing as a lesbian friend’s beau to appease her conservative father (“A Postcard To Nina”) or accidentally cutting off his finger when his girlfriend snuck up behind him for a hug (and calling it “You Arms Around Me”, no less), Lekman was, at age 26, one of the better lyricists of his generation.
Today, Kortedala is no longer my favorite album of 2007 (though it would easily crack the top five), in part because his next one not only bested it, but also subverted the very idea of what to expect from Lekman. With only the An Argument With Myself EP coming in between, I Know What Love Isn’t arrived a full five years after its predecessor. During this extended hiatus, Lekman apparently suffered a bout of swine flu (remember when that was a thing?) and, if a good chunk of the new album’s themes were any indication, considerable heartbreak. At the time, he referred to it as his “debut album” even though it was actually his fourth; one can partially rationalize this distinction, as the record largely (but not entirely) eschewed Kortedala’s sample-heavy aesthetic for a more organic, predominantly acoustic palette.
Regardless, I Know What Love Isn’t wasn’t just another great leap forward for Lekman but one made possible by the foundation his earlier records established. None of its songs were as lugubriously (or knowingly) lush as Kortedala’s “Sipping On The Sweet Nectar” or as sonically layered as the 7” version of “Maple Leaves” (from early singles comp Oh You’re So Silent Jens), but these relatively stripped-down tunes confirmed his hangdog persona and sardonic humor were still fully intact. His sad songs ever-more-melancholic, he also continued to fine tune his acerbic wit and kept it from curdling into bitterness or misanthropy.
One of the album’s simplest tunes, the mournful “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name”, appears twice: It kicks off I Know What Love Isn’t as a spare, barely-over-a-minute-long piano instrumental, and returns at the end as an acoustic guitar-and-voice lament that would slip into mawkish territory if not for its quirky asides (the lyric, “An F-minor-11th / or an E-flat-major-7th” features plucked demonstrations of both chords.) Between that pair of almost-matching bookends sit eight near-perfect miniatures, together comprising a ten-track album on the order of Northern Gospel (and all the others listed in that essay.)
Lekman undermines expectations of that first, piano lullaby version of “Every Little Hair…” by immediately following it with one of the album’s most lushly (or perhaps lusciously) arranged songs: “Erica America” is Yacht Rock in comparison with its shimmering chimes and cymbals, atmospheric synth washes, sweet female backing vocals and tasty sax solos. Still, Lekman’s devoid-of-reverb acoustic guitar is front and center, more Bossa-nova than Christopher Cross. Also, Cross would never think to come up with a lyric as funny as, “Sinatra had his shit figured out, I presume,” or wordplay as shrewd as “Summer is exhausting me / with its exhaust fumes and empty promises.”
Such piquancy carries over to “Become Someone Else’s”, only musically rather than lyrically. Crisp guitar pop led by a twinkling piano hook and occasionally fortified by elegant string quartet interjections, it’s an ode to friendship, or more specifically, maintaining one without a steady romantic partner’s distraction. Instead of “a sinking rock tied…” to another person, Lekman would rather be “a flat stone skipping across the ocean.” However, the song’s most notable for a reference to ex-Everything But The Girl singer Tracey Thorn in its bridge. In her solo song “Oh, The Divorces!” from two years before, she sang, “Oh Jens, your songs look at life through a different lens.” Here, he responds, “It all depends what lens you’re looking through, maybe / but all I know ’bout love I learned from you, Tracey.” It’s an “awww” moment for any fan of both artists, but that doesn’t make it feel any less earned.
If anything, “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” is of a piece with Thorn’s best compositions. “It’s a young Friday night / and I’m filled up to the brink,” is the first lyric; surrounded by major-7th chords and an equally bright and melancholic arrangement (like a slightly sped-up “Erica America”), Lekman instantly evokes a vivid state of mind: a myriad of possibilities tempered by reality, the desire of taking action kept in check by one’s own tentativeness. The descending chorus of “She asks you what’s wrong / you say nothing, it’s nothing” is one of the loveliest, saddest things I’ve ever heard. It takes a talent as genuine and complicated as Lekman to wring tears over jaunty Caribbean-accented piano triplets and perky sax filigrees.
At its midpoint, the album finally delivers two of those ballads “Every Little Hair…” falsely hinted it would be teeming with. “She Just Don’t Want to Be With You Anymore” has more than a bit of ’80s sophisti-pop flair (just like early Everything But The Girl) but built on tape loops and samples instead of acoustic jazz (though he adds on a few harp arpeggios near the end.) “I Want A Pair of Cowboy Boots”, however, is entirely acoustic: just a guitar, Lekman’s multi-tracked vocal and a few simple xylophone plonks on the chorus. It might’ve made a great country song for someone else, but in his hands, it’s a doleful but not humorless folksong: although his desired boots are certainly made for walkin’, it’s towards “Anywhere but back to you.”
Rather than further wallow in misery, I Know What Love Isn’t picks up the pace from that point. “The World Moves On” opens with an African Highlife-sounding guitar, soon accompanied by piano, finger snaps and a flute melody extrapolating that of Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” (!) as, over six-plus minutes, Lekman relays an epic monologue about being jilted and slowly working through his pain. “You don’t get over a broken heart / you just learn to carry it gracefully,” goes its chorus, so wise and direct that it enables him to get away bon mots like “No one’s born an asshole, takes a lot of hard work / But God knows I worked my ass off to be a jerk,” like a Stuart Murdoch with no filter.
Kortedala’s big-sky production almost returns full-force on “The End of The World Is Bigger Than Love”. Opening with an extended, ABBA-worthy orchestral fanfare, it’s a soundscape as immense and joyous as early ’80s new romantic pop (complete with soaring “Wooo-ooh-oooh’s”), if a little more pastoral and less synthetic. The chorus posits that “A broken heart is not the end of the world” because, well, the title, making this simultaneously one of his most optimistic and caustic songs. The best bit comes three minutes in, when he sprouts off a list of other things dwarfed by said end of the world: “And it’s bigger than the stock market / and the lose change in your pocket / and the Flatbush Avenue Target / and their Pharmacy Department!”, momentum building with each line until the chorus returns for a final time.
Nine songs in and we’ve finally arrived at the title track, which sports a melody even Murdoch would be jealous of. Gentle and sad yet also buoyant and brisk (Those chiming notes! Those handclaps!), it finds Lekman reminiscing on more dating mishaps, like an awkward come-on to the friend sitting next to him in the driver’s seat or proposing to marry someone “just for the citizenship” (he goes on, “I’ve always like the idea of it / a relationship that doesn’t lie about its intentions and shit.”) But he always comes back to the disarming, direct chorus of, “I don’t know what love is, but I know what it isn’t,” and I’ll willing to bet such a simple, warts-and-all declaration resonates on at least some level with most listeners.
As I Know What Love Isn’t circles back to “Every Little Hair…” in its second version, it concludes on a sweet, sad tone Lekman’s sustained across the entire album. What remains so wonderfully affecting about Lekman, even putting aside his lyrical and melodic prowess is that he never suggests he’s entirely given up on love—you always sense his yearning to participate in the madness of it all, even if he doesn’t explicitly say so. Almost another five years would pass before his next album, Life Will See You Now, arrived. Considerably more upbeat but matching the same level of introspection as its predecessor, at first listen I felt moved to called it his best yet: listen to “Evening Prayer”, where he utilizes the least likely subject matter (a man and his plastic 3D replica of a removed tumor) as a catalyst for a repeated lyric (“It’s been a long, hard year”) as urgent and poignant as anything he’s ever written. Life’s a good-to-great album and encouraging for Lekman’s continued growth as an artist, but I Know What Love Isn’t remains the one to hear—so concise and complete, it won’t be a shame if he never fully tops it.
Up next: Fragments of Time.
“Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder”: