Jens Lekman Studies the Science of Songwriting
Matters of the heart exist, of course, in an emotional realm, but for singer/songwriter Jens Lekman, heartbreak has a bit of a scientific component, too.
For his follow-up to 2007's Night Falls Over Kortedala, Lekman didn't want to make an album about a difficult breakup. But the songs had other plans.
"I was trying to not write about heartbreak or anything like that. It was the last thing I wanted to write about. I felt like every time I was writing those kinds of songs, they sounded like a whiny 17-year-old emo kid or something," Lekman says. "I was very actively trying to write about something else. The songs just sort of went in a circle and came back to where I started."
What Lekman circled back to became I Know What Love Isn't, a record of 10 songs that explore that very theme in his inimitable songwriting voice, which combines tenderness, wit, and honest self-awareness. It's not precisely a breakup album, but a meditation or study on the subject.
"As the title suggests, I can't say that I've learned anything, really. At the same time, it's the scientific approach, the process of elimination. You find out what it is not, at first."
I Know What Love Isn't is a beautifully constructed album, cohesive in its lyrical storytelling, with Lekman laboring to sharpen his eye for unusual details and images. The songs range from somber to soaring, more often than not falling on the upbeat side of expectations for a breakup album.
The lyrics are true to life but also embellished, personal, and observational in a detached manner. And they're all grounded in some Lekman experience or another.
"I tend to create situations and dialogue and characters and things like that, but the only thing is, I can't really make up something I haven't experienced myself," says Lekman, born and raised in Gothenburg, Sweden, and now living in Melbourne, Australia.
"I learned that the hard way the last five years, trying to write songs for other artists. That's how you make money in the music business, I think, so I was trying to write songs for other artists, but they turned out so lame because I was trying to sing from their point of view. But I haven't experienced their lives. I think there's a reason why no one ever covers my songs. They are my experiences and they are quite personal that way. They only work if they are sung by Jens Lekman, or the character Jens Lekman."
On I Know What Love Isn't, Lekman paints regret in a hopeful manner, resignation as relief, and ultimately finds a way to squeeze that bummer into something more like the light of a new day.
"I wish I'd never tasted wine, or tasted it from lips that weren't mine," he sings on "Erica America," the album's swaying lead single.
"To me, that line is actually quite hopeful in some sense. It's sort of like saying I don't regret tasting wine," he says. "Certain things in life make things that come after them less colorful and less full of taste. It's just a way of saying that a certain person meant a lot to you."
Elsewhere in the same song, Lekman integrates an entirely unrelated scene, witnessing the demolition of the old Frontier casino in Las Vegas.
"The day after, the air smelled like popcorn and ladies' perfume. Sinatra had his shit figured out, I presume," he sings, describing the bygone era of Ol' Blue Eyes through the remnants.
"It doesn't have much to do with the song in particular, just an observation," Lekman says. "There are a lot of lines in this album like that. I use these sort of portal techniques in the story to touch on something, starting on one thing and moving on, then back again."
But his songwriting makes those stray observations into more than just images. In a sense, Lekman is augmenting his own experiences with external things that reinforce his own thoughts and conclusions.
"I've always loved in my storytelling — and in my songs — that you can sing about something that is quite bad, but you can use a happy tune to sing it. That has a very interesting effect," he says. "I've always loved that balance."
Lekman describes songwriting as sometimes similar to micro-miniature models, focused on attention to lyrical detail. Some art is, indeed, presented within the eye of a needle, with some pieces constructed so tiny that they need a microscope to be seen. A micro-miniature exhibit at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles struck him with parallels to the level of details he struggles with in songs.
"It feels like something that I'm lost in, there are so many nuances. I was thinking about how obsessive you get with details in your songwriting, and it's details that no one ever cares about, but you're so obsessed with them," he says. "It's usually an indication something is wrong with the song and you should just give it up. It's never the detail; it's always something else in the song that's wrong. It's one of those things where you're looking for your glasses and actually you're wearing them."
Nowhere on the album is that sense of an entire world contained in one song stronger than on "I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots," a song told in dreams, with desires laid bare from the subconscious to the waking self.
"You were in my dream last night, like every night since two years ago," Lekman sings. "I think my dream is trying to tell me something, and I say tell me something I don't already know."
It's a song about trying to escape not from the breakup, but from the long-lingering memories, those "sad and worn-out midnight shoes" that Lekman so hopes to trade for new cowboy boots, to finally walk away. Time spent wallowing is time lost, a notion that strikes a chord with the 31-year-old Lekman.
"It is an album that is older than the other records, for sure. It's not a record I could have made when I was 23," he says.
Reviews of I Don't Know What Love Is tend to zero in on one particular line from "The World Moves On":
"You don't get over a broken heart / You just learn to carry it gracefully," he sings. It's the album's central message, one that doesn't come right away or too easily for Lekman or the listener.
It's a jaunty song, chiming piano chords and a bright flute solo, with lyrics that take the journey of self-reflection to its breakthrough chorus. Dead relationships don't wrap up neatly to be packaged away forever, so stop expecting them to, he says.
"I feel like that song has really been growing over the last two months when I've been touring. What I was getting at [with that line] was that I don't believe in closure, really. I think closure is a modern invention. I think we are looking for a solution, something that will end what you're concealing, very suddenly, and it will go away after a very certain amount of time. It doesn't work that way. We carry with us our heartbreaks, and they make us better people."
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