Since the beginning, Swedish songsmith Jens Lekman has drawn some pretty loaded comparisons. And that’s not just because Lekman’s work can so often rival the best indie pop of the past 20 years. His influences have always been easy to trace – the natural melodicism of Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, the poignant witticisms of the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt. But, where Murdoch’s work reads like a collection of short stories from a prodigious young college grad and Merritt tends to come across like a modern wiseass version of Cole Porter, Jens has always kinda come across as just a guy – your bitingly clever friend sitting next to you in a bar, alternatively spilling out his heart and telling you about something funny that happened to him while he was in Berlin. Whether it’s the product of true sincerity or a gifted hand (or, more likely, a combination of both), there’s always seemed to be less of a disconnect between Jens Lekman the person and Jens Lekman the songwriter, so much so that when Lekman bitterly concedes that he killed yet another party, it sounds like something that might’ve happened last night.
2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala was the crown jewel of Lekman’s career, gracefully topping a five-year run of enormously successful singles – “Black Cab,” “Maple Leaves,” “You Are The Light” – various standalone EPs, and an impressive level of artistic refinement. Kortedala found Lekman perfecting the insanely imaginative production and songwriting techniques that he’d been working with for years, from the innovative use of sampling to the masterful storytelling of songs like “A Postcard To Nina.” It was also his biggest international success, introducing his newly refined songwriting voice to a wider audience than he’d ever seen.
It’s been five years since Kortedala, and it’s clear that a lot has happened to Jens Lekman the person in that time. Even if it weren’t for the mess of pre-release publicity that so bluntly elaborated on the album’s background, it’d still be pretty easy to guess that I Know What Love Isn’t is the product of a pretty devastating breakup. I mean, it’s written all over the tracklist — “Become Someone Else’s,” “She Just Don’t Want To Be With You Anymore,” “I Know What Love Isn’t” — and the cover art, in which Jens stands alone in a sandy desert, his footprints visibly leading him away from the viewer, his face turned back for one last departing look.
Dramatic imagery for sure, but Lekman isn’t as concerned with framing his own breakup as a cosmic tragedy as he might seem. “It all depends on what lens you’re looking through, maybe,” he hesitantly intones on “Become Someone Else’s,” and Jens’ takes that conventional wisdom to heart. I Know What Love Isn’t is a series of meditations on love in general as a bitter, fickle experience, and Lekman attacks the topic from all angles. Jens’ doesn’t hide his resentment towards his former lovers (Erica America’s “I wish I’d never met you”), but he understands: “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” is a heartbroken song for the heartbreaker, written entirely from the perspective of the one who’s fallen out of love. And, throughout the album, he forces himself to concede his lover’s helplessness. On the devastating “She Just Don’t Want To Be With You Anymore,” he admonishes himself for projecting images of infidelity onto his lover’s lack of interest, and on “The World Moves On” he admits “I’ve been on both sides.” Lekman’s gift for unique and memorable imagery, meanwhile, remain fully intact. On beautiful highlight “I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots,” Jens suggests that the titular footwear is the best tool to fight off the dreams that haunt him at night, and, on the title track, he wishes for a green card marriage, the only relationship he can think of that “doesn’t lie about its intentions and shit.”
Jens Lekman the musician has changed quite a bit in the last half-decade too. I Know What Love Isn’t’s downcast mood is paired with a scaled back instrumentation – gone are the cinematic orchestral samples of Kortedala, replaced with a traditional set of acoustic sounds: guitars, strings, piano. But even if Lekman is using a reduced instrumental palette, he uses each of the colors on that palette in extremely expressive ways. The arrangements on I Know What Love Isn’t are light and airy, and its instrumental flourishes often echo the record’s lyrical sentiment: the weeping guitars in the back of “She Just Don’t Want To Be With You Anymore,” the lonely six-strings of “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name”. A few songs, however, most notably the previously released “The End of The World Is Bigger Than Love,” echo Kortedala’s sound clearly, and 6-minute centerpiece “The World Moves On” is noticably more upbeat, giving Jens an extended groove over which to muse his most disconnected thoughts.
“The World Moves On” might seem to serve as the lone vehicle for Jens’ more lighthearted storytelling and wit, which is fair – it’s not like there’s any real place for it on the downtrodden rest of the album. But it’s here that Jens’ conclusions shine through the clearest: “You don’t get over a broken heart,” he muses, “you just learn to carry it gracefully.” Jens doesn’t offer any answers or remedies, but he does use his experience to empathize, and, as such, I Know What Love Isn’t doesn’t end up feeling like it’s about Jens Lekman the person as much as it is the very condition of love in the modern age. It’s only on the album’s closer, “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name,” that Jens can’t mask his personal devastation any longer, and, even through a couple of his best ever half-grinned jokes, the sincerity is heartbreaking.
If Kortedala was Jens Lekman refining his craft down to its most potent form, I Know What Love Isn’t is him learning to use it to express something bigger than a pop song can. It’s a rare songwriter that can make a record like this, in which each song is wholly essential to the album’s power and stays with you long after the last track. I Know What Love Isn’t is more than a great pop album – it’s the most singularly rewarding statement from one of the more uniquely gifted songwriting voices of the past decade.