Infatuation, Intoxication, Regret: I Know What Love Isn’t by Jens Lekman

By Daniel Garrett

Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn’t
Produced by Jens Lekman
Secretly Canadian, 2012

Jens Lekman, a Swedish musician known to cosmopolitan Americans, is one of those singular figures who have been able to attract an audience through sensibility and talent: an intelligent, romantic male, with piano and strings, singing of love and world. Jens Lekman begins I Know What Love Isn’t with traditional piano music, and the piano sounding wonderfully bright, followed by an uptempo even danceable tune—the guitar and drums are particularly potent—embellished by a female chorus. Regret follows infatuation, and intoxication, in “Erica America”—the loss of innocence regarding love and place. In that song of regret, the narrator declares, “Sinatra had his shit figured out, I presume” and “Summer never ends here…summer is exhausting me…” There may be different well-established influences—from theater songs to jazz to folk to rock—for this expressive music, full of real world references. The string arrangements are prominent in “Becoming Someone Else,” and there are electronic effects in the lush ballad “She Just Don’t Want to Be with You Anymore.” However it can be hard to categorize Jens Lekman’s music: the singing and rhythm have a modern tone, but I would not necessarily say this is rock music. Yet, what does one call music that is accessible, contemporary, and built around rhythm, melody, and lyrics about relationships that is not precisely classical, jazz, or folk?

The album I Know What Love Isn’t is intelligent and intimate, mellow, and yet seems a serious encounter—probing, humorous—with a different culture and demanding relationships. It is a collection both arty and honest. “I think my dream is trying to tell me something,” Jens Lekman sings in “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots,” a guitar and voice song. In “The World Moves On,” featuring a great fast rhythm and social insight, the narrator notes that after personal travails the earth continues on its path, and people do what people do. “You don’t get over a broken heart—you just learn to carry it gracefully,” Lekman’s narrator sings, admitting that he has worked sometimes to be a jerk. He talks about the things he said, and should have said—and it is not difficult to relate to that, recognizing that sometimes tenderness begins when we are made to suffer for its absence.

In the essay “On Celestial Music” in his book of the same name, the writer Rick Moody has a piece on tenderness and transcendence that celebrates Otis Redding, Simon and Garfunkel, Arvo Part, and John Cage (Back Bay Books, 2012). Rick Moody is able to see across musical forms a distinct and admirable impulse and trait in an imperfect world. In one place, Moody asks, “Who isn’t full of longing for a place better than this place?” (pages 280-281); and not longer after, Moody answers, “Longing, and compassion, and tenderness are heavenly, and they make you better than you otherwise were” (281). However, much of current popular music is devoted to ambition, aggression, competition, and different forms of dominance and greed. Jens Lekman is one of the musicians doing something different.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.