By Joe Bates
Critically lauded and received though it was, Night Falls Over Kortedala, the 2007 second LP by Jens Lekman, is a right slog to get through. Particularly on his excellent EP collection Oh You’re So Silent, Jens, he demonstrated real ingenuity, enriching his narrative songs with skilfully-chosen samples and showing real individuality. Kortedala was the sound of overreach. The samples became the focus, attempting to pull up some fairly thin and underwritten songs by the scruff of their necks but instead making them messy and muddled. It was still pretty solid – and undoubtedly contained some of his best tracks – but the signal-to-noise ratio wasn’t great.
After a five year gap, including a bout of swine flu and a well-received EP, he’s back with I Know What Love Isn’t, a ‘break-up’ album which dispenses with some of the bombast of his previous records in favour of comparatively complex and subtly arranged songs. The singles released didn’t bode especially well – nice enough, but not especially exciting, particularly ‘Erica America’, where Lekman dabbles a little bit too eagerly in a lounge-rock style. Now it’s been out and available for a little while now, and consistent with the initial feelings about the singles, critical reception has been more muted than with Kortedala. Most seem to be finding it pleasant but a struggle to connect with, which is a definite weakness for someone who deals in affable story-songs like Lekman does.
However, the album actually delivers more than people are giving it credit for. It is more difficult to take in initially, with unusual chord changes and structures. The choruses are often barely there, especially when compared to him bellowing out ‘But I will never love anyone/That doesn’t burn me like the sun!’ over a huge brass band. With the odd exception though, it is a wonderful little record, perfectly formed and sequenced.
It’s lyrically and musically much more satisfying than Kortedala, with less of the wry and quirky humour and more substance. For instance, he hasn’t written a song as tenderly, earnestly pretty as ‘She Just Don’t Wanna Be With You’ before, and the music he chooses to complement it is a genuine revelation. ‘Become Someone Else’s’ is another example of the new understated Jens completely nailing a lyric and a feeling and marrying it to a perfect arrangement, even managing to make a seemingly unrelated section paying tribute to Tracey Thorn seem completely organic.
A good point of comparison is ‘An Argument With Myself’ from last year’s EP of the same name. It’s a much bigger sound and statement than anything here, with Lekman desperate to fit in as many words, samples and jokey lines as possible. It’s fine, but like much of Kortedala, it does sound like Jens is trying much harder than he needs to on the wrong elements. The complexity of the songs on this album show that they’re clearly the product of a lot of thought, but it’s thought invested in the right areas of mood and tone. It shows throughout – there are some moments where it gets a little too soft, but all the songs add well to the tone of the entire album. Additionally, bookending it with two versions of the same, lovely, song works perfectly to add to the unifying mood of melancholy, albeit laced with Lekman’s traditional quirkiness.
When I caught Jens in Brighton last Friday, it was clear that the chord changes and the subtleties don’t lend themselves to gigs as well as they do on record, at least in terms of audience reception. The tracks from Kortedala were fun, boisterous and were the most amenable to his traditional adding of samples, which all went down very well. The quieter songs from I Know What Love Isn’t could easily have got lost, but they stood up strongly, and this will surely be the case for the album’s reception as time goes on. It’s a strong, thoughtful record, and one that hints that Lekman’s maturity and his moving away from his ironic distance can only be a good thing for his songwriting.