Jens Lekman—global vagabond, indie heartthrob, singer-songwriter, romantic Don Quixote, and international music star—is just about to release his fourth proper album, I Know What Love Isn’t, when I meet with him in Gothenburg, Sweden. It’s also his first release in almost five years. Between his debut in around 2003 and his last album, 2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala, Lekman was reasonably prolific, releasing three albums and ten EPs. While some songs popped up on multiple releases, fans could count on some kind of new Jens Lekman single or EP or album popping up every few months. Then, suddenly, there was nothing.
“A lot of people thought I had writer’s block,” Lekman tells me, “but it was the opposite of that. There were just so many songs coming out. What I had probably was a finishing block—if there is such a thing. I felt like I was trying to do what I always did, which was just to make a loose collection of recordings and throw them together. But the album was trying to tell me that it wanted to be an album, and I wasn’t really paying attention to that.”
I’m having something of a hard time paying attention to Lekman myself. We’re sitting on a park bench, sipping coffee and munching doughnuts under a tree, while a roller coaster roars behind us and children run by screaming with errant candy wrappers and stumbling parents in their wake. I’m on a short vacation to Sweden, which I’ve given myself as a thirtieth birthday present, and I’m staying in Lekman’s hometown of Gothenburg on the country’s far western coast. As it happens, he was in town at the same time. He suggested we meet at Liseburg, a huge, leafy, and slightly rinky-dink amusement park that sits just on the edge of town—picture Disney’s Main Street, U.S.A. if it were Nordic, mixed with a few large modern roller coasters, arcades, and performance venues. “It’s the largest [amusement park] in Northern Europe,” Lekman tells me with a rather bemused tone.
In the days leading up to our interview, whenever I would tell a local that I was meeting going to Liseburg, they would frown slightly and ask me why (to be fair, they also reacted this way when I told them I was spending my vacation in Gothenburg). The general consensus was that it’s the kind of place you go once and never again. Lekman agreed: “First time, you vomit, basically. Then you know what it’s like.”
Much of Lekman’s work is about his hometown. He slouches lovesick around its public transport, neighborhoods, and even its many, many convenience stores. When he sighs in one early song, “Have you eaten your banana from 7-11?” it’s hard to imagine cramming more repressed romantic feeling crammed into a snack question.
“Gothenburg used to be a really tacky place. This was Gothenburg,” he says, gesturing at the tourists and souvenir sellers that surround us. “It was green moon bunnies, shrimps, people playing bingo. Music and culture was just desperate people trying to replicate what was going on in the U.S. and the U.K. It was horrible.
“You couldn’t sing about trams in the ’90s,” he continues, referring to Gothenburg’s self-consciously old-fashioned public transportation system. “You would have been killed if you did that. You would have been laughed at. But, all of a sudden, in the first years of the new millennium you could do that. There was like newborn pride, almost like a patriotism, over that. It really had its roots in what was not cool about [Gothenburg] rather than what was a little cool about it.”
There’s another supposedly uncool thing that has been central to Lekman’s work: sincerity. None of his songs wink at the listener, though they can be funny. He always puts himself at the center of the narrative, trying desperately to accomplish something. That can be something grand, like falling in love, but as often as not it’s something ordinary—he wants to get home from a party, or ride his bike up a hill, or have a good time at a party—but circumstances conspire to make him ridiculous. On “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” he’s taken his little sister to the beach to try to have a heartfelt talk with her about life. “I picked up a seashell to illustrate my homelessness,” he sings. “But a crab crawled out of it, making it useless.” This is fairly typical. He’s a kind of good-natured, lyrical Harold Lloyd, doing his best in an absurd universe. Despite his continual frustrations, especially with love, Lekman never sounds despairing. He simply packs up and tries again, with a new girl, in a new country, on another night.
At least, that was the case. There’s a creeping melancholy at the edges of I Know What Love Isn’t. Strike that; it’s not at the edges—it’s front and center. It’s in the mournful piano interlude that bookends the record, in the long, low sax solos that pepper the record, in Lekman’s extra slow and sleepily downtrodden singing. Hell, it’s right there in the title. It sounds like something a confused and sad person says when they break up with someone for reasons they can’t really articulate or something you to tell yourself when looking back at a relationship that ended for reasons you don’t understand. Is this what happened to Lekman?
“I would say about sixty-six percent is autobiographical,” he tells me. “For a while, I was worried that it was too personal. I was worried that I was just putting out my diary and that no one would be able to relate to it. The way I wrote was very—as opposed to the way I wrote before, when it was more like I had an idea for a song and the song was done already when I wrote it. For this record, I just started writing to see where it would take me, basically. And I started drawing from personal experience, and personal things that had happened to me, and then the stories started taking shape on their own.”
This wasn’t the only thing that makes this an unique entry in Lekman’s catalogue. Previously, Lekman assembled his albums by writing and recording a whole raft of songs, and sending them around to his friends. “You know what Eurovision Song Contest is?” he asks me, referring to the American Idol-like trash TV spectacle that captivates all of Europe every year. “They had like one of those. They’d call me up, and be like, ‘Song number three: five points. Song number four: eight points,’ and I’d put together a chart, and it would come out as an album.” Love, conversely, started out as an album, with the order and flow of the songs mapped out from the start. This is hardly a musical revolution for the world at large, but it felt that way to Lekman.
Eventually, Lekman and I say our goodbyes. “Do you like rollercoasters?” he asks me, and I have a sudden burst of anxiety, because I can’t tell what answer he’s looking for. I can’t even necessarily remember if I do like rollercoasters or not. Finally, I venture a yes. “Well, in that case, you should check out Balder,” he says, gesturing at the park’s famous antique wooden rollercoaster. Thirty minutes later, he’s gone, and I’m still waiting in line for my ride. It occurs to me that I’m only there in case I run into him later, so I’ll have something to talk to him about.
As it happens, I do run into him again. That evening, Lekman invites me to join him and his friends at Mastthuggskyrkan, an imposing, nearly century-old church that sits towards the edge of town on the side of a steep hill. We drink wine and smoke cigarettes while the sun sets over the city. There’s an outdoor concert whose sounds waft up to us as we chat, in English, for my benefit. Eventually, the last light fades, fireworks go off over the concert, and we all split up. Lekman has to go to bed because he’s taking his father to a concert the next day.
More than anything, I Know What Love Isn’t sounds like Jens’s break-up record. A man who has spent most of his adult life running away from other people seems to have finally had his heart broken. Earlier in the day, I suggested this to Lekman. Has the way he looks at relationships changed as he’s grown older? He’s 31 now. Is he looking for something more permanent in his life? Has it gotten harder to just pull up stakes and move on at the end of a relationship?
He takes a long pause before answering. “Maybe. Well, let me just quote Candi Staton: ‘Young hearts run free.’ It’s harder when you’re older to get dumped.” It may have gotten harder, but that doesn’t mean Lekman has given up tilting at windmills.
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