Sweden's Greatest Musical Export
No, it's not ABBA. It's Jens Lekman.
"What is your favorite music?" my 4-and-a-half-year-old daughter asked me last night. I had fallen into a reverie listening to Veedon Fleece, Van Morrison's astonishing 1974 document to his recently deceased marriage. (Quick plug: Veedon Fleece is finally available on iTunes. How is this not his most beloved album? All the vatic jazz of Astral Weeks, more of the pop structure of Moondance or Tupelo Honey. Whatever. Ignore it at your own peril.) I had to think twice before answering my daughter. She's a watcher, and has already started collecting evidence for the dossier she plans to hand me on her 13th birthday, a catalog of my failures and shortcomings. Me, I'm at about the age when I turn, to paraphrase Santayana, from a human being into an endlessly skipping gramophone. (Why? my 13-year-old daughter will ask me. Why did you curdle so easily into middle age, depriving me of a father who could talk to me about, among other things, music? And I'll withhold from my daughter the same answer my parents withheld from me: Because I had children.) I came up with some obvious names: Nick Drake. Nina Simone. Bill Evans. Van Morrison singing "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights."*"What's your favorite music?" I ask her back. "Ballet music," she says, her pet euphemism for classical music. "And Jens Lekman."
Circles square, cosmic harmonies converge, generations in comity meet. My obsession for Jens Lekman is no less intense than my daughter's. (And by intense, I mean intense: For an entire month, I could not restrain her compliantly in a car seat without playing the Jens Lekman song "You Are the Light.") A little background: Jens Lekman is a Swedish pop musician. To those of you who care, with oenophilic degrees of subtlety, about your pop music, Lekman is from Gothenburg, not Stockholm, which puts him in very good company with the Knife, Jose Gonzalez, and Soundtrack of Our Lives. (Stockhom is better known these days for the Shout Out Louds and Peter, Bjorn and John, ear-easy indie acts when compared with the Gothenburg sound, which is spikier, more introspective.) In Sweden, Lekman's a Grammy-winning, Billboard-charting star; here, he is embraced by a small subset of the vinyl-buying cognoscenti. Lekman's reception in the States has been limited by a couple of minor artistic transgressions. First, he is, yes, it's true, prone to the sort of twee self-regard that converted Wes Anderson, midcareer, from a promising filmmaker into an antique tea table. Second, his influences and affinities are instantly obvious: Stephin Merritt's drone, Morrissey's bite, Belle and Sebastian's atmospherics, with some of Jonathan Richman's wild pitch and yaw. But all this is superficial in the face of one overwhelming truth: Lekman is a fully realized pop genius, and each of his full-length records is its own masterpiece.
Lekman started out about 10 years ago playing bass in a friend's band, then wrote and recorded his own songs, which he distributed among acquaintances. (In one, he referred to himself as "Rocky Dennis," the boy in the movie Mask, and the name stuck for a while.) Lekman emerged from his (no doubt happy, no doubt self-imposed) private label obscurity when one song, "Maple Leaves," went viral and became a minor file-sharing phenomenon. "Maple Leaves" opens with some lush orchestral samples (I believe they are samples) that flow into a simple dance beat, a pitter-patter on a snare broken up by cascading drum fills on the toms. The rhythm steadies, strings converge on a melody, electric bass lays down some flooring, and pop narcosis commences in earnest. Then in his wonderful bandstand croon, Lekman sings: "It's autumn in Gothenburg/ I'm walking home to my suburb/ Rain falls hard on this city …" and later adds:
So we talked for hours
and you cried into my sheets
you said you hated your body
that it was just a piece of meat … I disagreed
I think you're beautiful
but it's impossible
to make you understand
that if you don't take my hand
I lose my mind completely …
Madness will finally defeat me
She said it was all make-believe
but I thought you said maple leaves
and when she talked about a fall
I thought she talked about a season
I never understood at all
I thought she said maple leaves
and when she talked about the fall
I thought she talked about Mark E Smith
I never understood at all
Worth quoting at length, right? (For those of you with a life, Mark E. Smith was the lead singer of the postpunk band the Fall.) It's hard to exaggerate how good, just how damn good this song is. It's true, you hear Stuart Murdoch and Merritt and Morrissey echo in the lyrics (and on other Lekman songs in the music, as well), but Lekman is a different bird. Morrissey is so preciously celibate, Merritt is openly gay; Belle and Sebastian is … what? Questioning, as the old college doublespeak would have it, and at moments, even aseptically unsexual. Emotions filtered through a layering of masks can still be moving, but they are also careful and distanced, and sometimes—a legacy of the closet stretching back to Wilde and no doubt beyond—brittle from self-pity. Lekman is a standard-issue nancy boy heterosexual (takes one to know one) and his music reflects it. Unschooled in hiding from his own longings, he feels deeply and openly (and often about someone else, not a Morrissey strong suit). "Maple Leaves" eventually appeared on Oh, You're So Silent Jens, a collection of the early stuff (among which is "Black Cab," another gem) that plays like a fully conceived album. On his second record, Lekman inhabited the role of boy diva to the hilt, backing himself with an all-female horn band and singing out his little Scandinavian blue-eyed soul. Yet more lyrics:
The Jehovas are standing by your door And they're offering eternal suffering Eternal life But you say No. Turn on the radio, clean the windows Do it in slow-mo, as the day unfolds. Oh how the sun shines inside you, just like I do. These days are gold.
Lekman's third record, the October release Night Falls Over Kortadala, does nothing to diminish his status as pop's most eminently quotable auteur since Morrissey. "From your mouth speaks your lovely voice/ The softest words ever spoken/ What's broken can always be fixed/ What's fixed will always be broken," he sings in "Arms Around Me," a four-minute pop rapture that tells the peculiar tale of Jens cutting off the tip of his finger while slicing an "ah-voh-cah-doh," in his Swedish accent. Night Over Kortadala is Lekman's most tightly produced record yet, and it is filled more with storytelling than high-flung poetic whimsy, but it is a corker, a beautifully realized record from beginning to end. And the vinegar has only gotten more acetose:
People seem to think a shy personality equals gifted but if they got to know one I'm sure that idea would have shifted Most shy people I know are extremely boring either that or they are miserable from all the shit they've been storing
I traveled to Gothenburg, Sweden's biggest university town, this past spring, and can report back that they don't order a tuna sandwich over there without first considering the Hegelian implications. I've had to pull over in my car to make sure I've heard Lekman's lyrics right. (My favorite snippet: "One day I'll be stuck in some museum/ Scaring little kids/ With the inscription 'Carpe Diem'/ Something I never did.") Over-arguing the merits of rock 'n' roll is a venal sin, and I hope to dampen no one's enthusiasm for Lekman by saying that his music is a very Swedish attempt to implode some false dialectics. Pop delirium need never come at the expense of genuine wisdom, a thought especially comforting to the middle-aged. Just as I concluded this happy thought, my daughter plunged to the floor, screaming, "I hate this music. I hate Van Morrison. Put on Jens Lekman NOW!"
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.