Jens Lekman is the kind of guy who gets thrown in jail (for spray painting a car) and uses his one phone call to request a song on the radio for a girl (“You Are The Light”). He falls for women cutting his hair (“Shirin”) as readily as he does strangers at antiwar demonstrations (“I Saw Her In The Anti-War Demonstration”). He chops off the tip of his index finger while slicing an avocado, and all he can do is fixate on how great it is to be held by his girlfriend (“Your Arms Around Me”). Through his two full-length releases, numerous EPs and a compilation album, the Swedish singer-songwriter has established himself as a bona fide romantic. He’s too much of an observational realist to be accused of wearing rose-colored glasses, but Lekman is an optimistic, glass-is-half-full kind of guy. So what happens when someone like this makes a breakup album?
For starters, if you took away all of the lyrics to Lekman’s third LP, I Know What Love Isn’t, you wouldn’t readily pick up on the sadness in it. There’s a hint of lamentation in album opener “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name,” a bright, wistful instrumental piano solo that ends each musical phrase with a slight frown. And then there’s a false start with the bland soft-rock of “Erica America,” whose tinkling sweeps of chimes and ultra-smooth guitar call to mind a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a flabbier Steely Dan song. “Become Someone Else’s” is more Lekman’s style: playful, melodic, extremely goofy. “Bats are sucking on cherries dangling from the trees/Hasn’t anyone told you what your fangs are for, little buddies?”, he asks. Lines like this can be off-putting and overly twee, but he counters these with more touching moments, like when, in the same song, the newly single man describes the “lonesome feeling” of sleeping alone and pretending his limbs are actually “someone else’s.” It’s sad, intimate detail, but this is the kind of stuff Lekman isn’t afraid to admit. If you’re on a breakup journey yourself, Lekman will be your empathetic companion.
Lekman will also deal you some tough love and put your problems in perspective (“A broken heart is not the end of the world,” he reminds on “The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love”), but he’ll let you, and subsequently himself, vent a little more before you get to that point in the album. “The World Moves On” is the most direct shot you’ll get at Lekman’s hurt. One especially striking scene he paints in the song is when his girlfriend introduces him to someone as “a friend,” to which he responds, “How can you call me a friend?/If you don’t love me then please have the dignity to tell me.” It takes courage to be that confrontational, but then Lekman admits that his confidence came only in retrospect: “But I never said any of that/I just shook that hand and looked down at the doormat.” All of this heaviness comes amid the sound of woozy strings, tweeting woodwinds, chirpy, cheery electric guitar, jingling tambourine, lightly palmed bongos—there’s even some snapping. None of the sounds in the song indicate the heartbreak he’s singing about or prepare you for a line like, “And that’s what it’s like when you’ve had your heart broken/The world just shrugs its shoulders and keeps going.”
Through it all, Lekman’s wit remains intact. Jolly bells, swaddling strings and smilingly strummed guitar prance around on “I Know What Love Isn’t” while Lekman resignedly accepts, “I don’t know what love is, but I know what it isn’t.” So what happens when someone like this makes a breakup album? He levels with you, makes you laugh and gives you some knowledge that takes the pressure off of your rush to heal: “You don’t get over a broken heart/You just learn to carry it gracefully.”