[Secretly Canadian, 2012]
Jens Lekman released his first full-length album in 5 years, I Know What Love Isn’t, on September 5. Lekman’s latest was billed as a breakup album, a genre that invites a healthy dose of skepticism. Breakup albums are often a creative crutch, dark works littered with cliche, or worse, a record label’s promotional tool. Two months later, the album still sounds pervasively sad in a way that’s unusual and jarring for Lekman’s work, but after repeated listens the depth and subtlety of I Know What Love Isn’t begins to stand out making it apparent that Lekman has achieved in a difficult genre.
“I like breakup records that don’t pat you on the back and say ‘It’s OK. It’s going to work out,’” Lekman said in an interview, “I like breakup records that say, ‘It’s shit now, and it’s going to suck even worse, but we’re in this together.’” This preference speaks not just to the content of Lekman’s latest, but it’s narrative arc as well. The album begins with the slow, sparse piano refrain of “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name” before giving way to Lekman’s de facto thesis, “Erica America.” “I wish I never met you,” declares Lekman, “like I wish I’d never tasted wine / Or tasted it from lips that weren’t mine, now every drop tastes more bitter all the time” accompanied by soft harmony and a melancholy saxophone solo.
The tension developed during the first two tracks is relieved by the upbeat piano melody of “Become Someone Else’s.” The song is signature Lekman storytelling, as he and a friend are in Mebourne attempting to move forward from breakups. The song is light, but perhaps reflecting his own fragile state, the narrative quickly turns from a discussion of his friend’s love life to Lekman’s own loss. “That lonesome feeling and what it tells us, sleeping on my arm till it becomes someone elses.” This has always been Lekman’s songwriting strength, using trivial details to draw out larger emotions. Here, Lekman describes the way your arm feels when you’re sleeping alone. Later in the album, Jens describes filing his time by working his way up to 100 push-ups. His songwriting strength, and the ultimate reason for the album’s success, is not describing a breakup as the absence of love, as other songwriters might, but rather the vivid presence of loneliness.
The album then slips back into melancholy for the remainder of the first half of the album. While these songs each contain beautiful imagery, they are, seemingly by design, oppressively sad. The lack of humor and buoyancy that usually characterizes Lekman’s music makes the songs somewhat difficult to listen to in succession.
Fortunately, side two provides some much needed lift. “The End of the World is Bigger than Love” is the clear album standout. Although released as a single two years ago, the song still fits snugly here in its place. Jens describes being in Washington, D.C. the night Barack Obama was elected (the first time [hopefully]). While out enjoying the celebration, he abruptly realizes that the world is going without him; progressing forward while he dwells on his past. This theme defines “The World Moves On” as well, where Jens hits it off with a girl at a bar, despite a raging wildfire dominating the television news. “And that’s what it’s like when you’ve had your heart broken,” says Lekman, “the world just shrugs its shoulders and keeps going.”
The album ends with a full version of the album’s opening melody, “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name.” Bookends to Lekman’s relationship story, the song is a reminder that although his feelings have progressed, the memories remain with him. This seems to be the ultimate purpose of the album, to create a permanent record of his turmoil, for better or for worse. “You don’t get over a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully.”