Failing relationships are so ingrained in pop music practice that “breakup albums” often fail to register as conceptual pieces at all. But concept albums they are, from In the Wee Small Hours and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely onward. Jens Lekman has always come off as the modest sort, so perhaps he’s acknowledging his latecomer status to the form on I Know What Love Isn’t with a sly reference to its origins: “Sinatra had his shit figured out, I presume.” The additional implication here, though, is that Lekman doesn’t have his shit figured out after the breakup that inspired his third album. The measured, contemplative tone certainly suggests otherwise. If his musical persona is taken at face value, Lekman just may be pop music’s most level-headed, least vindictive ex-boyfriend.
Introspection in the face of heartache is nothing new to Lekman, of course. He’s practically made a career out of tunefully puzzling over why people — himself included — do the things that they do they do and the sad and silly ramifications. Last year’s brilliantly funny single “An Argument with Myself” is Lekman distilled, as the absurd comedy of Lekman beating himself up over a two-years-old romance steals the spotlight entirely from the girl he’s ostensibly still hung up on. On recordings, at least, he’s the most analytic of romantics, the legitimately sensitive guy who’s not just putting it on to get in your pants, but probably a little crippled by his talky, scrupulous inner monologue. This is an introvert, remember, who “killed the party again” and channeled obsessing over his social awkwardness into a turn-up-the-radio anthem (2003’s “Black Cab”). So it comes as little surprise that I Know What Love Isn’t isn’t a breakup album in the way that Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago is a breakup album or Cursive’s Domestica is a breakup album or Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks is a breakup album. The newly-single Lekman doesn’t retreat into solitude, but talks with friends. We’re not treated to screaming matches or flying plates. No exes were harmed or even disparaged in the making of these songs. The closest thing to a confrontation comes on the album’s centerpiece of sorts, “The World Moves On”, where Lekman imagines himself demanding an explanation after his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend introduces him as a “friend”, but finds himself silently staring at the doormat instead.
The word choice there — “doormat” — is, perhaps, an all-too-tempting invitation to interpret Lekman himself as one, but while he doesn’t pin the blame on his ex (or “Erica America” as he refers to her in the name of the same title), neither does he wallow in self-doubt. Lekman portrays the relationship as a concept almost external to the couple, its eventual demise a matter of sad circumstance more than will — things just aren’t what they should be. “It’s just that every moment casts a shadow / A sadness of its not being something else / Other than itself,” he sings on “Some Dandruff on Your Shoulder”, a disarmingly upbeat song that scales the baroque pop-disco fusion of older songs like “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar” down into leaner, sax-driven yacht funk. Even in a moment of weakness, when Lekman tries to find someone to be mad at, it turns out he wasn’t left for another, but that “She Just Don’t Want to be With You Anymore”. Lekman finds some distraction and solace throughout, mostly with female just-friends, and it’s in these moments that his familiar, gently acerbic humor lightens the load a bit (“Jennifer called, told me about her latest admirer / Said, ‘Someone should make a pamphlet called, ‘So you think you’re in love with Jennifer . . . ‘”). On “I Know What Love Isn’t”, Lekman continues in the vein of his affectionate 2007 beard anthem “Postcard to Nina” by half-jokingly proposing to his lesbian friend, Renee, “But only for the citizenship / I’ve always liked the idea of it / A relationship that doesn’t lie about its intentions and shit.”
But, primarily, I Know What Love Isn’t is Lekman gracefully coming to terms with the breakup, and his lyrical and musical variations on this fixation keep the album compelling. He even avoids the potential redundancy of back-to-back songs called “The World Moves On” and “The End of the World is Bigger Than Love” by selling the first with a breezy, flute-powered disco groove and the second with a soaring chorus and a Get Happy!!-worthy Nieve melody on an upright piano. The switch to upright from Lekman’s usual grand was part of a conscious downscaling that also includes a move from elaborate arrangements to small ensembles and single instrument parts. By most standards, though, this is still ornate chamber pop, though airier than his other work as if to make up for the heavier subject matter. It’s also largely free of the classic pop samples he’s occasionally snuck into the mix.
Lekman finds his closure in what could hardly be called an original idea. “You don’t get over a broken heart / You just learn to carry it gracefully”, he sings on “The World Moves On”. He ends with “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name”, a spare acoustic guitar and vocal piece about the way old loves find a permanent home in our beings from our DNA to the way we make music: “I wrote some songs when we broke up / But nothing came out so I stopped / Every chord I struck was a miserable chord.” There are many good, even classic, breakup albums that use those miserable chords as a starting point. It’s to Lekman’s credit that he pushed through the misery and came up with something far more unusual: a breakup album for the well adjusted.