When a singer is well known for intimately chronicling everyday life in his songs, in a way that is as interesting as it is hilarious and mesmerising, the prospect of getting a look at his diary is pretty exciting. When it turns out that said diary revolves around the most timeless and piercing of pains – a broken heart – the reaction becomes somewhat more awkward. How should I respond? Should I be listening? Such is the initial reaction to Jens Lekman’s first full-length album in four years, I Know What Love Isn’t.
It’s been a long time in the making – several of the songs will be familiar to those who have been lucky enough to get a spot at one of his beguiling live shows over the past couple years. And, the result is a powerful, if rather raw, consideration of the ageless tale of a broken heart healing. “I was very concerned because up to a point I was worried it was just too personal,” reveals Jens. “It felt like I was just giving out my diary and I was worried no one would be interested in listening to it. It wasn’t until the very end that I felt there was something very essentially human about it.”
The album’s intensity – and this is one of those records that feels like it’s alive in the room with you, sitting beside you, pouring out its soul – is amplified by the fact that it distills into just one story: how to cope when someone breaks your heart. Jens Lekman’s back catalogue is a sprawling, meandering wander through the mean streets of life, taking in Melbourne-based backpackers, off-kilter excursions to drive-in bingo palaces in Gothenburg and awkward dinners with unlikely in-laws in Berlin. It’s filled with an embedded humour that highlights and delights in the hilarities of everyday life, told through tumbling sequences of words that shouldn’t work but somehow do. Brass ensembles and poignant string sets surround the lovingly crooned stories, which have been charming a devoted following of emotionally aware twee twenty-somethings for the best part of a decade now. So, with that in mind I Know What Love Isn’t is a bold move for the Sweden-born singer. Almost as bold as the dramatically shaven head he’s sporting in the recently released video for the single, ‘Erica America’.
“I started writing this record really differently to the others,” explains Jens. “In the past, I would just write a song to entertain someone and it would turn into something more personal afterwards. Very often I had the idea for the song right away and thought, ‘this song is about this, how should I go about writing it?’ And then I found some way of telling that story.”
This time around, the admittedly heartbroken singer has tried a different approach.
“I had no idea what the story was at the beginning. All I knew was that I didn’t want to write a song about heartbreak so I just started writing down images and scenes and conversations, things that happened that I had no idea about,” he recalls. “Especially in ‘The World Moves On’, I had no idea where I was going when I started writing it. I liked the image of me lying on the floor hugging a bag of frozen peas, which is the first line of the song. And I was like, where does this lead to and why am I doing that?”
In this instance the soothing ice pack was a reaction to the searing heat of the Melbourne summer of 2009, when bush fires swept across the south east corner of Australia, rather than a response to any romantic discomfort.
“I was writing to find out what I was thinking – like Joan Didion said,” says Lekman. “And then of course in the end it led me back to the break-up. Some people have found ‘The World Moves On’ to be pessimistic but I think it’s a hopeful way to look at it. To realise that there is a world out there that doesn’t give a shit about your problems or your broken heart – I find comfort in that.”
When Jens Lekman says that making his new record was much more personal than just constructing hits, he really means it. But the candid recollections are not the only thing that makes it different from, say, Night Falls Over Kortedala. There’s far less instrumental support, which is immediately obvious on the touchingly exposed album opener, ‘Every Little Hair Knows Your Name’. It’s safe to say that this song will makes every little hair on your arms and legs stand up. It’s just Jens and a guitar, putting into words and music something that should be impossible to communicate. It’s one of those rare moments where it’s difficult to get past the first track on an album because it’s so powerful.
“I felt like with the last record I had every sound and every colour that I wanted to work with. I was happy with what I was doing. I realised the best way to develop was to do less of what I already have,” he says, citing Tindersticks’ Simple Pleasures as one source of influence. “The record before Simple Pleasures was this huge record with lots of strings and a full orchestra and then he made this stripped down, very soulful, jazzy record and that’s what I had I mind, I guess.”
Despite the rather sombre undertone of I Know What Love Isn’t, Lekman’s trademark sense of humour continues to shine through as he recalls post break-up exercise routines and trying to write songs that all end up sounding the same. The album’s title track muses about marrying for citizenship rather than love. Lekman cheekily observes that by not going through with the wedding was the only way that he was able to write a song about it. “I sing about my friend who I was going to get married to and realising that that friendship was the best relationship I ever had, even though it was non-romantic. Friends are more important to me than any lover or girlfriend has ever been,” he adds.
“If there is a conclusion, it’s like I say in ‘The World Moves On’ – you don’t get over a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully. This is not something that I’ll be done with, but I’ll just have to live with. It’s funny, I don’t really believe in closure but I do feel like this record has helped me somehow. If it has some sort of purpose, that would be it, for me and for anyone who can relate to it.”
It’s the people and places that make Jens Lekman’s songs what they are – due in no small part to the fact that they are all true stories, albeit with occasional details changed. His talent for turning the mundane events of everyday life into adventure-packed musical pearls has his fans hanging on every word, eagerly anticipating the final page of each musical novella.
“If you become a friend of mine or we get to know each other there is a certain risk or chance – depending on how you look at it – that you will end up in a song,” he says. “But I always ask everyone who’s in a song if they are ok with that or if I should change the name or not. There’s a few made-up names but I haven’t had anyone say no yet.”
He continues: “I remember a few years ago, a guy who came up to me in Wollongong, a small town in Australia. He said he liked my music because he felt there was always this relation between the very private and personal, and the world outside, and I had never really picked up on that before. Nowadays I feel like I’m more aware of that myself, but at the time it made me really happy.”
As Jens Lekman prepares to take his new record on tour – some four months worth of dates have already been announced, with more set to follow – he’s gathered together a relatively small band with the aim of keeping things as simple on stage as they are on the new LP.
“There’s just violin and piano, bass drums and guitar and that’s the whole band,” he explains. “I’m not bringing any extra instruments, just one guitar. It’s a bunch of really young people who are really hungry to play music and I’m really excited about this tour.”
And for those wondering whether, or indeed how, he will mix old and new, there is a reassuring message from Jens: “I still love my old songs and I’m definitely going to play a lot of the old stuff as well. You couldn’t go from ‘Friday Night At The Drive-In Bingo’ to ‘Erica America’ – that would be weird – but there is something very fascinating with finding links between old and new songs. And, I always play ‘Black Cab’. I don’t think I’ve ever been tired of that song.”