A young university-aged student takes his girlfriend to a public protest in their city. As the protest evolves into a full-scale riot, the young man holds his girl’s hand, and suddenly realizes that his hand is shaking, not out of fear of the violence that is erupting around them, but out of the knowledge that their relationship is nearing an end. As rocks are flung towards police and cars are set ablaze, he looks the girl in the eye, and knows that she knows it’s over between them. Frustration and fear comes to a boil, and he expresses his desire to set some fires of his own, not for some silly political reason, but out of anger that he didn’t see the break-up coming sooner. “I’m not a political fighter,” he concedes, adding, “I don’t even have a cigarette lighter, but I wanted to see that fire burn down the avenue.” Amidst all the violence, the young man suddenly learns what real pain, what real desperation is, and if only he was a smoker, the world would suffer his wrath. Or so he tells himself, as he heads back home, alone.
At the tender age of 22, Jens Lekman is already a star in his homeland of Sweden. The Goteburg native has already put out a number of independent, home recorded releases since 2000, at a rate that borders on prolific, and this year, everything seems to be falling into place, as he has managed a #2 single, and even better yet, a top ten album. Over the past six months, the rest of the world has slowly been catching on to what this kid is all about. Released in North America back in April, the EPs Maple Leaves and Rocky Dennis, led by the gorgeous songs “Rocky Dennis Farewellsong to the Blind Girl” and “Black Cab” served as tantalizing teasers of what Lekman is capable of. Now that debut album, the cutely titled When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog, is finally here, and not only does it deliver, but it’s easily the most charming, accomplished debut for a singer-songwriter since Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour of Bewilderbeast.
So how to describe Jens Lekman’s sound? Well, to put it bluntly, he wears his influences on his sleeve, and isn’t the least bit ashamed of it, either. You can hear Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephen Merritt in Lekman’s melancholy love songs, Morrissey in both his voice and his dryly humorous lyrics, Donovan and Nick Drake in his acoustic arrangements, Ron Sexsmith in his classy melodies, Sondre Lerche in his relaxed delivery, Belle & Sebastian in the innocuous moments of twee, chamber pop, and yes, even a touch of cheeseball Las Vegas style showmanship. Lekman is never overbearing, and he keeps things simple, and as a result, that heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity wins listeners over instantly.
If there’s one track that leaps out at you immediately, it’s the first single “You Are the Light”. Lekman’s self-denigrating, yet wholeheartedly optimistic tale is captivating: a man is arrested for trying to impress his girlfriend (“Yeah, I got busted/I painted a dirty word on your old man’s Mercedes Benz, cos you told me to do it”), and doesn’t fret one iota, because he’s so in love, he’d do it again, as the entire track is buoyed by a wonderfully lavish horn section that sounds more Wayne Newton than Stephen Merritt. Rarely does a contemporary pop song so skillfully combine contagious hooks, retro sounds, and rosy-hued lyrics so devoid of irony they’d make the Flaming Lips seem snide in comparison; if this single hit #2 in Sweden, then we over in North America should be so lucky.
The rest of the album doesn’t let up, as it alternates from fun, sample-laden pop tunes, to gentler, acoustic fare. “If You Ever Need a Stranger” is gorgeous, as Lekman sings over a simple piano arrangement, offering to sing at a girl’s wedding, saying, “I know every song, you name it/By Bacharach or David/Every stupid love song that’s ever touched your heart/Every power ballad that’s ever climbed the charts,” adding morosely to himself, “I would cut off my right arm to be someone’s lover.” “Happy Birthday, Dear Friend Lisa” is shamelessly giddy, with its lilting melody, electronic beats, and calypso samples, as Lekman delivers his capricious lyrics about a birthday party going on while Jehovah’s Witnesses prowl the neighborhood: “Drinking cheap wine to bossanova, you’re a supernova in the sky/The Jehovas in their pull-overs are no casanovas like you and I.” “Do You Remember the Riots?” is completely a cappella, almost resembling a jazz vocal delivery, while “Silvia” has a forlorn mandolin melody that echoes Lekman’s voice, concluding with a solemn string arrangement.
“The Cold Swedish Winter” will have anyone who lives in northern locales smiling (“I met her in a snowstorm, I was outdoors plowing”), and Lekman goes on to brilliantly depict a tender scene in the dead of winter, singing, “We went home to her place and cooked up some chili/It warmed us from the inside cos the outside was chilly/We had to be quiet and not wake up her family/But I made a high-pitched sound when her cold fingers touched me,” as a pair of soft female voices come in during the lovely chorus. The acoustic folk of “Julie” echoes the beatific melodies of Bob Dylan’s early love songs, the facetious “Psychogirl” has Lekman musing self-deprecatingly, “They all fall for me, these psychogirls/They’re drawn to me mysteriously/I don’t know why,” On the title track, he puts a different spin on the innuendo behind the referenced Stooges classic when he says, “When I said I wanted to be your dog, I wasn’t coming on to you/I just wanted to lick your face, lick those raindrops from the rainy days/You can take me for a walk in the park, I’ll be chasing every single lark/I’ll be burying all the skeleton bones, peeing on every cold black stone.”
Bookended by the more experimental lo-fi excursions of the Velvets-inspired “Tram #7 to Heaven” and the outright optimism of “A Higher Power”, When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog is a record about being alive and in love, about relishing every passionate moment, even the darkest ones. Lekman sees happiness in the most mundane, even off-putting things, such as holding a girlfriend’s hair as she vomits, and when he sings, “It’s a perfect night for feeling melancholy,” you sense he’s feeling anything but that. It’s all so unabashedly sentimental, an unforgettable debut.