A singer-songwriter perfectly suited for today’s iPod generation, Jens Lekman stated in a recent PopMatters interview that he has no desire whatsoever to record a proper album, opting to concentrate solely on individual songs instead. It’s a bold thing for the young Swedish prodigy to say, but considering the volume of songs he has recorded since his late teens, and the surprisingly high quality of the majority of them, it’s best to let the young maverick do things his own way. Lekman’s approach is simultaneously old school and contemporary; by placing the emphasis on the single, he hearkens back to the ’50s, when rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy, and people worried about sales of 45s, not LPs, but he also caters to today’s massively popular MP3 trend, where people are in constant search of the latest brilliant track, while the full-length album slowly becomes a dying art.
Last year’s debut full-length CD When I Wanted to Be Your Dog was perceived by many (yours truly included) as a proper album, but as it said in the liner notes, it was technically a greatest hits of sorts, a collection of recordings culled from 2000 to 2004. Album, compilation, re-release, whatever you wanted to call it, it was one of that year’s standout records, the finest, most confident singer-songwriter debut since Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour of Bewilderbeast. Boasting a voice that immediately made us think of Stephen Merritt, Stuart Murdoch, and Morrissey, and a lyrical wit that dared to match those same people, Lekman took us on an entrancing little excursion, singing songs about eating bananas at 7-11, Jehovah’s Witnesses interrupting birthday parties, breakups at protest rallies, and cozy houses in the dead of the Scandinavian winter, songs like “You Are the Light”, “A Higher Power”, and “Julie” displaying a pop songwriting prowess that many struggling musicians would kill for.
If you’re Jens Lekman’s record company, you had better be ready to churn out the CDs, because the guy is so prolific, he’d have a massive collection of unreleased material before you finished reading the rave reviews of his latest release. The folks at Secretly Canadian are certainly on the ball; in addition to the excellent Department of Forgotten Songs web page, which gives fans free downloads of new and previously unreleased tracks, we have the second Jens Lekman compilation in just over a year. Oh, You’re So Silent Jens seems more like a reissue than the last record, primarily because Lekman’s fans have likely heard the majority of these songs before, as it compiles his two acclaimed EPs from early 2004, Maple Leaves and Rocky Dennis, as well as B-sides from his You Are the Light single, and several newer tracks posted on his MP3 page. Since all three discs are out of print, releasing a compilation of this sort is the logical thing to do, and to no one’s surprise, it makes for one fine CD.
The songs from the Rocky Dennis EP read like both an ode to the real-life kid whom the movie Mask was based on, but also as a confessional-style record of Lekman’s own. The EP’s highlight, “Rocky Dennis’ Farewell Song” is achingly beautiful, combining a lovely glockenspiel melody, lush orchestration, gently thrumming bass, and a subtle electronic beat; the song bursts with heartbreaking, heartwarming beauty, as Lekman, or should I say Rocky, sings to the blind girl, “Someday I’ll be stuffed in some museum/scaring little kids, with the inscripture, Carpe Diem/Something I never did.”
The Maple Leaves EP gets a bit more adventurous. The title track (which also appeared on the European release of When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog) has a 60s orchestral pop feel, with two separate bouncy drumbeats overdubbed over one another, as Lekman sings facetiously, “She said it was all make believe/But I thought she said, ‘Maple leaves.'” “Sky Phenomenon” has Lekman cutely (and quite aptly) describing the Northern Lights as, “like someone spilled the beer all over the atmosphere”, while the stripped-down “Someone to Share My Life With” has Lekman displaying surprising economy, avoiding any of the bells and whistles that permeate “Maple Leaves”. Best of all, though, is “Black Cab”, arguably Lekman’s finest song to date, a stunning combination of harpsichord and Byrds-style jangle pop, as Lekman tells the story of a guy who feels remorseful after ruining a party (“I killed a party again/I ruined it for my friends”), misses the last train home, and is forced to take a shady taxi, saying, “They might be psycho killers, but tonight I really don’t care,” adding miserably, “So I said, ‘Turn up the music, take me home or take me anywhere.'”
From the You Are the Light single, “I Saw Her at the Anti-War Demonstration” returns to the same 60s folk rock sound of “Black Cab”, as Lekman has visions of feeding his dream girl “lukewarm English beer and vegan pancakes.” The sprightly “A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill” is constructed around a snappy trumpet melody, while “Another Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill” is much more intimate, with its subtle cello, female backing vocals, and chirping crickets in the background.
True to form, Lekman is already ahead of his American label, having released the very good The Opposite of Hallelujah EP earlier this year, and he’s probably got even more projects on the go as we speak. As listeners, we can either scramble to keep up with the guy, or just sit back and enjoy each new compilation. Either way, the young man is on an impressive roll, and Oh, You’re So Silent Jens is an ideal introduction to his perpetually growing body or work.