Nick Bollinger discusses the latest set of existentialist pop from Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman.
If you were to ask most musicians, ‘What is your mission?’ I wonder what they would tell you. My guess is many would say they were simply answering an innate creative urge, how their work might serve any greater purpose being a matter to consider later, if ever. But if you asked Jens Lekman you’d be more likely get something close to a definitive answer. In fact he might have provided one on his new album.
In the first song on his new album, the Swedish singer-songwriter describes a Mormon missionary in Gothenburg (his home town), on a late August morning in 1997, who has just heard about the death of Lady Di. And this little, detailed song-portrait quickly leads to a discussion of that great big existential question, ‘What’s our mission?’, while the music takes a typical excursion through the kind of whimsical upbeat pop Lekman loves. It’s a great opening track, frivolous yet at the same time dealing with life’s big issues in a way that pop music usually goes out of its way to avoid. And with that precedent established, it’s not much of a stretch to ‘Evening Prayer’, a disco song featuring a friend, a tumour and a prayer. Hitting devastating notes with the lightest, sweetest touch has long been Lekman’s specialty, and here he does it better than ever.
Life Will See You Now is Lekman’s first album long-player in five years. His last one, 2012’s I Know What Love Isn’t, though it dealt with many of the same themes, was more subdued, and its mixed reception led the songwriter to a reappraisal of his work. The intervening years saw such experiments as the Postcards project, in which he wrote and released a new song – a musical postcard – every week for a year; and Ghostwriting, in which he collected, through interviews, the true stories of a range of individuals and turned them into song, breaking from the autobiographical approach he had previously favoured.
In many ways Life Will See You Now finds him coming a full circle. The personal is central, while the bright beats and bubbling melodies offset the dark ironies in his observations.
If Lekman has been rightly praised for his narrative gifts, compressing into verse character, detail and mood with the deftness of a short-story-teller, he is also a lovely melodist with a sweet tenor voice in the romantic pop tradition. As always, he’s not been afraid to quote or borrow wholesale from other artists. He has been compared to Belle and Sebastian, with whom he shares the retro-pop influences, and also to Morrissey, whose work he claims he hasn’t ever explored, on account of the fact that, at school, Morrissey’s music was what the bullies listened to. And it’s true that Morrissey, for all his apparent championing of the underdog, also has a vengeful streak that is the antithesis of Lekman’s gentle humanism. Melodically, he can evoke the sophisticated M.O.R. pop of Jimmy Webb or Burt Bacharach. But more than anyone, I’d compare him on these latest songs to Paul Simon. His rhythms have never been more varied, shifting through disco, calypso and bossa nova, while melody and lyric are honed to crisp perfection.
Life Will See You Now is Lekman’s most fully-developed record yet, and a part of that is due to Ewan Pearson – the producer who has previously worked with Franz Ferdinand and Pet Shop Boys, among others. But Lekman has given him great stuff to work with. There’s plenty of heartbreak, yet it’s offset with humour and always a glimmer of hope. Talking recently in an interview, Lekman showed both his earnestness and his wit when he described Life Will See You Now as “an existentialist record, about seeing the consequences of your choices… about taking responsibility,” adding “How sexy isn’t that?” He just about describes his mission right there.
Songs featured: To Know Your Mission, Evening Prayer, Our First Fight, Wedding In Finistere.
Life Will See You Now is available on Secretly Canadian.