Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn’t (2012)
There is a peculiar, metaphysical irony in the title of Jens Lekman’s latest album. In the most basic sense, I Know What Love Isn’t is an ironic title because it is an album that is thoroughly concerned with love. In truth, listening to this record over the past month has given me a fairly good sense of exactly what love is, along with the extensive desperation and hopelessness that comes when such a feeling reaches its end. But on a deeper level, calling this album “I Know What Love Isn’t” was an ironic move because this album simply, unequivocally, and unrelentingly begets love. Much like Jens Lekman himself, I Know What Love Isn’t is almost ceaselessly lovable.
Indeed, this album owes much of its appeal to Lekman’s persona, as expressed in his writing and songcraft. The Swedish singer/songwriter has spent the majority of the past 12 years honing his abilities as one of indie pop’s greatest balancing acts. He’s an heir to the musical throne of Jonathan Richman, Morrissey, and Stephin Merritt, whose tremendously overbearing sadness is matched only by their penchant for sarcastic humor and irony. Much like his forebears, Lekman’s ability to balance these two qualities so dexterously makes him irresistible to me as both a songwriter and simply as an individual. I’m not sure whether I love him or his music more.
I Know What Love Isn’t is Lekman’s third and most coherent LP, although it is neither his most endearing nor his most ambitious. It is occasionally calm, though frequently charged, and full of rich but relatively smoothed-out instrumental arrangements, featuring light woodwinds and horns, strings, spanish guitar, and drums, along with Lekman’s airy baritone vocals. Lekman himself calls it a breakup record, which is appropriate, although the album is not entirely the sullen mopefest that most records bearing the ‘breakup’ tag tend to be. Instead, it is a thorough and extensive analysis of the end of a very specific and personal relationship, expressed in a variety of musical styles through Lekman’s trademark storytelling lyrics. In the breezy 38 minute runtime, Lekman hits all the necessary marks, from nostalgic sentimentalizing (“Erica America”) to lonely pining (“I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots”), denial (“Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder”) and eventually acceptance. “She Just Don’t Want To Be With You Anymore” and “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name” deal particularly heavily in the latter.
All of those songs are great, but what sets I Know What Love Isn’t apart lies beyond common breakup album tropes. Lekman’s goal may merely be self-validation, but what he accomplishes on this record is much bigger. In a recent video for Pitchfork, Lekman said that his favorite breakup records are those which acknowledge that “It’s shit now, and it’s going to suck even worse, but we’re in this together.” Amidst personal anecdotes and bouts of self-loathing, a feeling of understanding and togetherness is what this album brings. It calls upon the listener like a truly good friend, not to commiserate, but to get up and move on.
Although most of the touching, sad, and funny moments on the album occur when Lekman is in full on storytelling mode, such as when he describes his desire to marry his best friend in Melbourne “only for the citizenship” on the wonderfully jaunty title track, Lekman also occasionally deals in profundities. With the added padding of his storytelling as evidential support, Lekman’s profound statements — which often occupy the choruses of the songs on I Know What Love Isn’t — pack an exceptional punch. The album climaxes with the sweeping eighth track, “The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love,” which begins as a desperate plea for explanation and ends with Lekman and a choir singing the song’s title as a life-affirming rallying cry. “A broken heart is not the end of the world,” he assures the listener and himself, “because the end of the world is bigger than love.” Although “The End Of The World” is exceptional, it is the previous track “The World Moves On” that bears the album’s most transcendent statement, and perhaps its central thesis. “The World Moves On” might be Lekman’s most ambitious singular piece to date: a 6-minute, guitar driven whirlwind of a song, in which he recounts heavy drinking, making out with a stranger, being assaulted, and trying to befriend an opossum all while the Australian bush fires raged in the summer of 2009. In the midst of all this chaos, Lekman finds something beautiful — not closure, but acceptance — about his doomed relationship. “You don’t get over a broken heart,” Lekman admits, “You just learn to carry it gracefully.”
With that line in mind, the rest of I Know What Love Isn’t feels like a learning process, in which the listener shadows Lekman as he learns to live with his broken heart. It’s unclear to what extent Lekman’s method of “graceful carrying” actually helps him cope — the acoustic closing track is so crushing in its solemn acceptance that I almost wonder if it worked at all — but when the guitars and strings shimmer and Lekman sings of the sun rising over Melbourne on “The World Moves On,” it’s hard not to believe in him.
I Know What Love Isn’t is out now on Secretly Canadian.