Like Morrissey, Stuart Murdoch, and Jonathan Richman before him, Jens Lekman broadcasts such an extreme personality with his songs that it would be easy to write him off as a construct, as if the fey Swede wandered out of a Wes Anderson movie and into a record deal. Yet like those spiritual forebears, Lekman’s persona is so effortless it has to be genuine. He doesn’t write as the character Jens Lekman; he pours out every insight and longing with minimal filter. As such, his albums play like collections of diary entries and handwritten letters, the story of Lekman’s life set to song. This is a guy who decided not to go through with a sham marriage because he knew he couldn’t resist the compulsion to write a song about it and thus expose the whole thing.
Instead, he wrote a song about not going through with it, which became the title track for his first album in five years, I Know What Love Isn’t. And while his previous records came off like a collage of big-hearted art films, this one is pure rom-com. Lekman has always been an old soul, but having turned 30 and symbolically crossed the precipice from freewheeling youth to responsible adult, he now believes himself able to contribute to a tradition as old as pop music: the breakup album.
Lekman’s reflections on heartbreak come couched in smooth FM sounds that would feel like pastiche from a less transparent artist, but here feel like an inevitable step in his sonic trajectory. The indie-pop, disco, and found sounds that have always informed his work remain, and his melodies are as distinct and unshakable as ever, but it’s all steeped in lounge piano and accented by breezy flute and luxuriant sax. Just as essential to Lekman’s approach is his cast of characters, and on I Know What Love Isn’t he continues to flesh out the universe of Nina, Shirin, and Dear Friend Lisa with the likes of Jennifer, Stevie, and Erica America.
Lekman seems preternaturally suited to this subject matter. (He once sang, “It’s a perfect night for feeling melancholy.”) And sure enough, in airing his romantic fallout, an intensely personal songwriter has produced his most universal work. So many of the details ring true: desperate grasps at self-improvement through trips to the gym; the frustration of trying to write a song that isn’t haunted by his ex; the suffocating helplessness of being rejected not for someone else, but just to escape. “You don’t get over a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully,” Lekman sings, and in doing so, he’s produced a fine return to the public eye, one that doesn’t enchant quite like his early material but resonates much deeper.