[20 September 2011]
PopMatters Music Editor - Canada
This may sound like a bold pronouncement, but Sweden’s Jens Lekman (let’s ignore that he’s moved to Australia for the time being, shall we?) is this generation’s Bob Dylan. Just as Dylan weaved his way out of acoustic folk into electric rock music, and then took a mad dash into country, Lekman started out with heart-on-his-sleeve confessionals, then nudged himself into baroque pop (even going so far to sample the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” for his song “Maple Leaves”) and his most recent records, 2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala and his new EP An Argument With Myself, have found themselves grounded in twee and—would you believe?—Afrobeat and reggae (among other things) respectively. What’s more, Lekman has a gift for spinning forth a narrative yarn, much in the same way Dylan can gracefully unspool a coherent story in as much time as he feels like telling it, and Lekman knows his way around a twist, or a bon mot when he sees it. One of the best examples of this is Lekman’s “A Man Walks Into a Bar”, which goes something like:
A man walks into a bar
Orders a beer and a bowl of peanuts
But the bar turns into a spaceship
And the bartender gives him a hair cut
I can’t remember the end of that joke
You once told it to me when we smoked
On your fathers expensive cigars
All I remember is the part of a man walking into a bar
Sheer brilliance. Lekman is able to take a well worn joke, and completely turn it on its head to express his inability to embrace what it is that his lover has told him in past conversations. It’s one of this critic’s favorite lyrics, ever. Well, I’ve got some good news for those who have been waiting patiently these past four years for Lekman to release something shiny and new: the five-song An Argument With Myself EP, which is a bit of a teaser for a new full-length album that was supposed to be released this year as well, shows the young artist snaking his way around even more complex narratives. Here, there are stories that Lekman can barely contain himself in telling as he literally densely packs sentences with so many words that it’ll make your head spin. Musically, the mini-album is no slouch either, as it shows Lekman dabbling into world sounds and mandolin-tinged Americana (again, among other things) with largely appealing results.
The Tropicana-infused title track is immediately stirring, and the subject matter appears to be about Lekman’s decision to move to Melbourne: “You didn’t come here for nothing, did you?” he muses at one point. However, the song is a stunning portrait of shuffling along in a city moving at its own pace: “Having an argument with myself down Elizabeth Street / Bumping into backpackers / And struggling with the parameters and the basic construction of my feet / Kicking beer cans and rubbish along the concrete / Crossing the street, crossing galaxies of taxis and backseats and drunk sweets and half freaks”. Lekman delivers the song with a certain attitude of wistfulness, and there’s a nervous edge to the proceedings as there are points where Lekman just barrels through his words at such a frenetic pace that it’s almost impossible to keep up. Obviously, he’s got a lot on his mind, but the song weaves seamlessly around his vocal fumbling, and is endearing and sweet. It’s a sort of upbeat update of “Black Cab”, and a sign of the artist maturing—where he used to be dour and self-deprecating, he’s now confronting that aspect of his personality.
However, that’s not the only place where Lekman lets the words flow like a river from his pen. “Waiting for Kirsten” is another song of longing and the banality of living in hometowns, one that is at times delivered at a machine gun pace. It is also a slightly slowed down version, at least tonally, of Lekman’s earlier song “Julie”. Once again, he shows his way around a great phrase, such as in the decidedly non-politically correct line “They turned a youth centre into a casino / They drew a swastika in your cappuccino”. Despite the obvious sonic throwback of sorts to an earlier song, there’s a denseness to be found here that invites multiple listens just to parse what exactly Lekman has on his mind.
The An Argument With Myself EP also shows Lekman take a turn into the socially conscious. “A Promise” is a fetching yarn about the state of one man’s struggle against the health care system that seems to make young workers sicker than better. The song soars with dewy strings, embellishing the sort of baroque pop that Lekman was mining earlier in his career. Meanwhile, “New Directions” is exactly that: a course charted directly into the new. The song’s a stab at white boy funk that starts out discerningly with a trumpet intro that sounds utterly regal, before taking its turn into a bass heavy booty shaking dance track of the sort that Steely Dan might have written if they’d gone the twee route. That’s more than an apt comparison, as Lekman sounds weary retracing his route around motorways in the first verse, sort of like a battered Donald Fagan might have in his prime. And then “So This Guy at My Office” is an attempt to broaden Lekman’s palate by being a soaring reggae track bolstered by the unlikely presence of a flute wandering in. It’s another home run: a tale of a co-worker that Lekman is regaling to a girlfriend, and just babbles on about because he’s stalling at telling her that he loves her. It’s not quite up there with “A Man Walks Into a Bar”, but it is disarming and effective in its own way.
Ultimately, this extended play sees Lekman reaching a transitional state in his songwriting, looking back to past totems used in his work but also looking forward to a new form of expressionism in his songwriting. An Argument With Myself shows Lekman starting to find his feet, insofar as finding purpose in his life as a songwriter—remember, this is a guy who briefly retired from music to go work in a bingo hall. The only complaint listeners might have with this EP is that it is, well, an EP: at almost only 18 minutes long, it’s too short. What’s more, there isn’t a great deal of unity to the material: it sees Lekman skipping from one genre to the next. While the material might be mere castoffs to Lekman—he has said that these five songs didn’t fit contextually within the actual album he’s working on, but were popular enough with audiences when played live that he decided to release them anyway—it is utterly top shelf, almost reaching the dazzling heights of the songs found on his singles collection Oh You’re So Silent Jens. This EP cements and solidifies Lekman’s status as one of the most dependable and vital songwriters at work today. And while it can be argued that Dylan’s best work is already well behind him, the future just looks bright for Lekman. I can’t wait to see what journey he takes us on next, or argument he has, for that matter.