Schmaltz, sympathy, and humor dominate Lekman's newest album, his best one yet.
Many of us have lived in places like Kortedala. Small, quaint neighborhoods or towns that exude a charmingly insular vibe, where the pace is slow, where everyone knows everyone, where young kids on bikes cheerfully raise hell, and where the folks in the crowded local café look up whenever they hear the door open. But as you grow older, that perceived insularity soon becomes close-mindedness, quiet becomes stifling, idyllic becomes cheesy, and the more you let your cynicism get the best of you, the more you want to just get the hell out of there.
Jens Lekman had a similarly optimistic outlook in his neighborhood near Gothenburg, Sweden, where his studio is located, but according to the singer-songwriter, the suburban predictability and conformity, the threat of violence lurking around nighttime corners, and the general assholishness of the town's denizens convinced him to pack up and leave. Thankfully, though, not before he put the finishing touches on an album that stubbornly tries to champion sentimentality in a modern world that's growing more and more jaded each day.
Displaying a disarmingly direct level of sincerity and a knack for self-deprecating sweetness, the prolific Lekman turned heads in 2004 with When I Said I Wanted to be Your Dog, which was a smash in his native Sweden, and then started to build a strong indie rock following in North America the subsequent year with the compilation Oh You're So Silent Jens, both releases brilliantly combining understated sampling with the kind of smart, but never cloying songwriting that would make Stephin Merritt envious.
With Night Falls Over Kortedala, although the characteristics of Lekman's method remain unchanged, that smooth baritone voice ever-present, his second official full-length boasts a confidence that his previous releases seem to only hint at in comparison. He's only in his mid-20s, but Lekman is quickly emerging as one of the best pop songwriters of his generation, and his new album sees him on the cusp of something much bigger than a bunch of swooning Swedes and adoring indie scenesters.
Lekman doesn't even think of hiding the fact that Night Falls Over Kortedala is all about schmaltz, with nearly every track either a love song or a sentimental character sketch, but it's the way he sells that schmaltz and sympathizes with his characters that attracts us to his music time and again. Few can get away with the gimmicks he tosses our way on this record, and yet he pulls it off repeatedly until we're punch drunk: a sample serving as a jab, a clever line as a right hook, and a euphoric melody delivering the knockout blow.
"And I Remember Every Kiss" wastes no time in putting all the emotional cards on the table; tympani and an orchestral sample steadily building to a crescendo, Lekman crooning glumly, "I fucked up, I always tried to be true,", and when the musical tidal wave finally breaks, and comes crashing down in a wash of horns and cymbals, he emotes in classic Scott Walker fashion, "But I swear I'll never kiss anyone / Who doesn't burn me like the sun / And I will cherish every kiss / Like my first kiss." "You remember your first kiss?" he asks coyly on the sprightly "Sipping on the Sweet Nectar", which shamelessly pieces together a gentle disco tune out of a Willie Rosario cover of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and an obscure tune by Zimbabwe artist Patrick Mkwamba. "Kanske Är Jag Kär I Dig", which translates as "Maybe I'm in Love With You" combines a gentle funk beat with a strong doo wop influence, while the ebullient "Into Eternity" and the intentionally melodramatic "If I Could Cry (it would feel like this)" similarly refuse to beat around the bush.
It's when Lekman focuses on his trademark wit that this album turns into something special. A true story about his posing as a girl's boyfriend to hide her homosexuality from her father, who just so happens to be a fan of Lekman's, is both sweet and hilarious. He depicts a farcical dinner table scene ("We're having dinner with your family now / Keep a steady look at your left eyebrow / If it's raised, it means yes / If it's not, it means take a guess"), and later has to deal with an unexpected admirer ("Your father is mailing me all the time / He says he just wants to say hi / I send back 'out of office' auto-replies"). "Your Arms Around Me" takes a seemingly unromantic kitchen mishap and turns it into a beguiling, gorgeous love song, Lekman's smitten narrator too preoccupied with his girlfriend to worry about the gash in his finger: "Blood sprayed on the kitchen sink / What's this? I had time to think / From your mouth speaks your lovely voice / The softest words ever spoken."
"Shirin" gives us the most sumptuous vocal melodies on the entire album, Lekman channeling early '60s American pop crooners while painting an empathetic portrait of his hairdresser, smattered with memorable little touches ("She tells me stories from the war in Iraq cause they were there / Shirin pulls my head to the side / But in the mirror I can see a tear in her eye") that enhance the song's profession of platonic love. Concluding track "Friday Night at the Drive-in Bingo" colorfully describes a quirky rural pastime, peppered with asides that offer insightful commentary without coming off as snide ("Why do the people in the country wanna look like the people in the city / When the people in the city aren't the slightest pretty?"), but before he knows it, Lekman can't help but get caught up in the hokey, yet fun little shindig ("Tonight's jackpot is a pig, hey that's criminal! / G-42! Ooh, I'm going diagonal!").
These days, it seems most love songs are either too high-gloss to convey true sincerity or come with ironic winks, and attempts at being clever end up sounding precious instead of perceptive, but the precociously talented Lekman is a master of lyrical simplicity and gently self-effacing comedy. There are times when he seems on the verge of sounding as pretentious as the next indie rock darling ("I picked up a seashell to illustrate my homelessness"), but he always ends up knocking himself back down to earth, coaxing a smile out of his audience ("But a crab crawled out of it, making it useless"). A first-rate songwriter and the best lyricist this side of Jarvis Cocker and Craig Finn, Kortedala's loss is the world's gain.