Life Will See You Now makes no secret about exposing its tender heart, but luckily it has enough substance to rescue it from a Lifetime movie level of sentimentality.
In the press release for Jens Lekman’s fourth studio album, Life Will See You Now, Lekman describes how the album’s title came about. It was a last minute decision bred from Lekman describing the album as such: “Well, it's about these people, and it's like they're sitting in a waiting room waiting for life to start, and then the nurse comes out and says ‘life will see you now'." It’s the sort of quirky anecdote that is signature to Lekman, but, paired with Life Will See You Now’s sincere and life-affirming content, the title risks having a schmaltzy ring to it, like it’s the musical equivalent of a warm and fuzzy dramedy with a big ensemble cast. The sort of film that comes out around the holidays, providing families with something light to digest either before or after a potentially awkward Thanksgiving dinner. In short, it’s a title that risks tainting one’s experience of an album with more depth than this comparison may suggest.
What comes out the most spoiled is arguably “How Can I Tell Him”, a beautiful take on emotional openness in straight male friendships. It’s a touching and vivid number, yet the punchline of “Before he’s gone he shouts, "Later, dude / I think / Yeah / I love you too" feels a little trite when it should be profound (to mangle/paraphrase a lyric by Orange Juice, who Lekman is clearly fond of). At the same time, the song creates a very real feeling of the discomfort one sometimes feels being on either the receiving or giving end of an honest, heartfelt statement of appreciation from or to a loved one. These feelings are real, but there is just something a little too sweet in the presentation.
Lekman’s lyrics should not be to blame. Although it is quite easy to label them as “quirky”, his very specific, anecdotal writing breeds the sort of real emotions and details that are so often lacking in music as poppy as that found on Life Will See You Now. In the course of three of its best songs, we go from a 3D printed tumor to a contact lens that’s been dropped in a fairground among the “slumbering seals” to a long list of ingredients from a particularly evocative perfume. For some songwriters, a lot of these details would seem reaching, but in Lekman’s hands, the specifics almost feel as finely incorporated as those in a short story.
Musically, these songs are fantastically upbeat, exploring disco motifs and rhythms reminiscent of well-loved pop songs from the ‘80s and ‘90s. “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel”, featuring Tracey Thorn of Everything But the Girl, and lead single “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” are definite highlights, lush and uplifting without pushing too hard. The low-key beats and Thorn’s guest vocal falls elegantly into place with guitar and piano flourishes on the former, while the latter’s catchiness is something of a sneak attack despite its instantly irresistible steel drums. If you ever wanted a club-ready version of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, then “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” is especially for you.
Lekman mercifully has enough talent that Life Will See You Now’s positive qualities help to dull its more treacly bits. Opener “To Know Your Mission”, with its slightly cringy line of “Rifling through the Book of Mormon / Says it’s way too early in the mornin’” might lead you to anticipate a bumpy ride, but the album hits a blissful stretch from “Evening Prayer” to “Our First Fight”, then resumes its smooth path with the jubilant and Paul Simon-esque “Wedding in Finistere” and the twee disco of “How We Met, The Long Version”. Life Will See You Now makes no secret about exposing its tender heart, but luckily it has enough substance to rescue it from a Lifetime movie level of sentimentality.