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All sad singer-songwriters are alike, but Jens Lekman is an exception. For the majority of a long if intermittent career, the Swedish indie-pop troubadour has specialized in cheerful dolor. The difference between his approach and American mooniness is a northern European sensibility that assumes everything will go wrong while inclining to shrug and chuckle about it. I Know What Love Isn’t from 2012, his last studio album and one of the rare entertaining breakup albums, typifies the elation he finds in misery; the contrast between his romantic melancholy and the music’s perky, slightly silly richness produces bittersweet ache. Bright, chipper guitar-pop plus piano bounce, and a string section neatly enlivens human suffering. I won’t recommend the album to those going through a breakup: it demonstrates how romantic feelings can pervade the most trivial of contexts and elevate the quotidian. You may not want to hear, as he puts it, that the end of the world is bigger than love.
Since I Know What Love Isn’t, Lekman has released singles and mixtapes — most notably his Postcard series, in which he released one song a week all throughout 2015 — and he’s finally made another full-length album. The new Life Will See You Now, out since February, is cheerier than its predecessor: tempos brisker, strings lighter, melodies breezier, songs unified by Lekman’s force of persona rather than consistent narrative. Occasional samples add sonic variety to the familiar template while integrating so naturally that they can slip by without notice, as horns and synthesizers jump more strikingly from the mix. In a sense his melodies and arrangements are inappropriate to such a presentation, implying, as they do, a happier singer singing more frivolous words. His mild tunefulness and willingness to tinker with exotic ingredients recalls modes traceable to the solo careers of Paul Simon and David Byrne and since adopted by indie-pop bands focusing on textural blend over character construction. That’s his chief charm; persistently, he places himself in musical settings that complement rather than simulate the expressed emotions at hand. The Jens Lekman portrayed in song would never listen to conventionally stark acoustic laments, let alone play them. Such literalism irritates. He rather masks his feelings in humor and a feelgood, homespun pop style given to snaky guitar figures, string filigree, sighed backup vocals cooing and aching, and vaguely tropical keyboard coloring. His wry, accented voice mixes sugar and tang. The consequent dynamic defines the coexistence of pleasure and pain.
Since the singer-songwriter form constructs a human being’s soul laid bare, much hinges on likability. Lekman’s wit, instincts for self-mockery, and the general psychological implications of the dialectic described above draw a charming character with unusual vividness. Identification is encouraged but, thankfully, hardly necessary to enjoy his latest batch of mordantly gleeful ditties. “What’s that Perfume that You Wear?” accentuates a chiming, rinkydink keyboard hook with sweeter, lower keyboard chords and rattling percussion to produce a balmy blast of lavender and lemon ginger, as Lekman inhales and instantly recalls a seaside vacation with his lost love; musical tackiness indicates ambivalence about his own nostalgia and bolsters the haunting power of the perfume in question. “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel” enlists Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn to sing a jaunty duet about sneaking into an amusement park and using the rides after hours to the tune of ethereal backup singers melding with breathy synthesized violin and rhythm glide; musical soar parallels the presumed thrill of riding a Ferris wheel, at night, when you’re not supposed to, wind in your face, the view receding into the distance. “Wedding in Finistere,” featuring his tastiest guitar riff, brightest horn section, and most rollicking drums, shudders over mortality and choice as he admits to feeling like a “five-year-old watching the ten-year-olds shoplifting/ten-year-old watching the fifteen-year-olds French kissing/fifteen-year-old watching the twenty-year-olds chainsmoking/twenty-year-old watching the thirty-year-olds vanishing.” Existential terror replaces romantic disquiet, and Life Will See You Now’s scattered qualities suit this. The shift reflects not maturity, that eternally solemn virtue that singer-songwriters aspire to, but rather the meanderings of a thoughtful guy whose mind happened to wander into grander territory than usual. He captures an ebullience whose presentation acknowledges ephemerality.
Elsewhere ephemerality melts into gush. Lekman’s balance between musical cheer and lyrical/vocal brooding assumes a certain proportional distance between one and the other. Life Will See You Now’s aural brightening might have pushed him into the dumps, but instead drags him several steps toward joy, which sits on his shoulders oddly. Often Lekman contents himself with an ideal of songwriting where amusing whims, clever lines, token stabs at humor, and sharply observed details preclude emotional engagement with the material. “How We Met, the Long Version” — whose glorious concept starts with the Big Bang and tells the history of the universe up until he meets his lover, because “You can call it fate or chance/but we made it happen” — rides a buoyant disco beat, horns glittering. The first two songs, “To Know Your Mission” and “Evening Prayer” contextualize the album’s existential anxiety with spiritual yearnings and wet admissions of sentimentality, but the concreteness of their details, intended to be clever, is not a substitute for wit. While the former’s plaintive chorus neatly displays his vocal ache, the beauteous backup vocals on the latter hardly flatter a song whose kind wishes for a friend surviving cancer don’t diverge from received ideas or language. Then again, the increased warmth and cheer make for piquant tunes and delectable textures. The record lights up from beginning to end, always alive with riffs and tunelets and ear-tickling noises, including the synthesizer glow on “To Know Your Mission.” The procession of hummables from “What’s that Perfume that You Wear?” to “Our First Fight” (one of his most scrumptious acoustic riffs, up there with 2011’s “Waiting for Kirsten”) to “Wedding in Finistere” clicks into place with such bubbly expertise that you can hardly imagine playing the songs in another order. Thoughtful, diffident guys throw caution to the wind occasionally in pursuit of sonic radiance.
Lacking I Know What Love Isn’t’s overarching narrative, Life Will See You Now is concomitantly less confessional and more openly crafted. It’s upfront about its status as product, the next installment in a gradual procession. Doggedly entertaining and sublimely nontranscendent, the album’s happy to settle comfortably into his oeuvre while inhabiting a new mood candidly acknowledged as temporary. Screwing with his persona-to-music dynamic reveals a surprisingly deep correlation between one and the other as they each adjust in tandem. Behold another Jens Lekman album, shifted several degrees into the sunlight. Savor his modest joy as modestly as he does.