Singer-songwriter Jens Lekman returns with Life Will See You Now, possibly his finest record to date.
The brilliant Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman’s catalog is filled with wryly self-aware songs that analyze coming of age, love, friendship, and heartbreak in an entertaining fashion. Like Stephen Merritt or Jarvis Cocker, Lekman’s lyrics are unusually story-driven, often having a beginning, middle, and end rather than circling a theme poetically. His peculiar take on indie pop includes everything from Scott Walker-type baroque pop to tropically-themed exotica to sample-based electronic music. (One of his most fascinating choices was to sample Calvin Johnson’s croaking refrain from Beat Happening’s “Gravedigger’s Blues”.) On top of all that, he’s a first-rate singer with a beautiful croon that stands outside of time just like Morrissey.
Lekman’s last record, 2012’s I Know What Love Isn’t, felt out of character compared to the rest of his output. Lacking his usual effervescence, the album espoused fatigue and felt leaden throughout, although his unique strengthen as a singer, songwriter, and arranger still shined in places. Since releasing that record, Lekman embarked on some unique songwriting projects. In 2015, he made a New Year’s Resolution to write and record a song every week of the year and actually followed through on it, naming the series Postcards and uploading every single one to his Soundcloud page. Additionally, he created another series titled Ghostwriting, where he’d write songs based on stories that his audience would tell from their personal lives.
Now returning with his long-awaited fourth full-length album, Life Will See You Now, Lekman has crafted a masterful return to form that bridges the gap between the 2007 sample-based opus Night Falls Over Kortedala and the more measured full-band arrangements of I Know What Love Isn’t, creating a newfound synergy of his past and present. Life Will See You Now is a remarkably focused and well-produced record that blends upbeat '80s influenced pop and disco into Lekman’s established indie pop. You won’t hear likely many other indie pop albums as refined and rich as this anytime soon: it's full of Easter eggs lyrically and sonically and is evermore listenable because of the strength of its songs.
While Lekman mines many of the same personal concerns of his work in the past, he imbues the subject matter with a newfound sense of resolution. “Postcard #17”, a holdover from his Postcard series, rides on a sample of Charles Mingus’s “Myself When I’m Real” with Lekman singing about what he fears and culminating with a verse in which he turns round to face the fear: "Is that what I was scared of? / Fucking ridiculous.” It’s an unusually angry lyric both in language and delivery for Lekman, but the breakthrough earned here is taken to its logical conclusion in the next song, “Dandelion Seed”, which focuses on the problems of being anxious in every action you take, or, as Lekman says, building "a bomb shelter under every dream". By the end, Lekman resolves himself to let the flow of life take him like the wind takes the titular seed. The final lyric goes, “And the wind is like… a string section.” That ellipsis, that hiccup, gives us a sense of discovery, bringing the emotion that drives the seemingly maudlin realization away from cliche and into profound truth.
And that’s how a lot of this record is: intentionally cliched metaphors butting up against beautifully saccharine music that somehow rings as absolutely real. The album’s mission statement is on clear on the first track, “Know Your Mission", which is the kind of peppy indie song that you can easily imagine soundtracking the opening credits of your favorite movie. It tells the story of a Mormon missionary meeting Jens in 1997 and their subsequent conversation about what they want out of life, to which Jens responds, “But in a world full of mouths, I want to be an ear / If there’s a purpose to all of this, then that’s why God put me here.” “Evening Prayer” and “How Can I Tell Him” analyze heterosexual male intimacy in a hilariously graceful manner, similar to of Montreal’s twee classic “Tim Wish You Were Born a Girl". “Evening Prayer” is one of the album’s more disco influenced tracks, with lyrics that chronicle the relationship between Jens and a friend who survived cancer. As a coping mechanism, his friend carries around a 3-D printed model of his tumor, which unsettles Jens. But his friend comforts him, “It helps me a lot to have a friend like you / When I saw how worried you were, I knew I had to be strong.”
The incredibly infectious “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel” features one of Lekman’s very best melodies, setting you off into heaven on angelic strings and cheap-sounding electronic percussion. “Wedding in Finistere” is a horn-driven romp with a motor-mouthed chorus reminiscent of Paul Simon’s most jittery work. Lead single “What’s That Perfume You That You Wear?” is heavily percussive and danceable, with a copious amount of steel drums accenting nearly every line—it reminds one of Hot Chip’s work on One Life Stand. The lite-disco continues on the conceptual and hilarious “How We Met, The Long Version”, which tells the story of how a couple met from the beginning of the universe to the awkward start of their relationship, where Jens asks to borrow her bass guitar. “Our First Fight” is a delicate story-song vignette in which a relationship is challenged, but then resolved with that special smile that’s shared between lovers.
There’s a lot in Life Will See You Now to suggest that it’s Lekman’s finest album to date. It’s certainly his most refined and emotionally rich. But, more than anything, it reveals Lekman as a maturing songwriter and human being who’s able to roll with the life’s uncertainty and continue to make beautiful art about it.