Music

Jens Lekman: I Know What Love Isn't

Lekman's sweetly melancholy third full-length is that rare breakup album that emphasizes mature, thoughtful perspective over wallowing, self-hate, or bile.


Jens Lekman

I Know What Love Isn't

US Release: 2012-09-04
Label: Secretly Canadian
UK Release: 2012-09-04
Website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image