Boys nowadays are not what they used to be. Things were hard enough when the beer-guzzling coke-snorting lads were around: so unwashed and unlikely that before they had time to repeat the ageing “hope I die before I get old” motto, they suddenly found themselves having neither died nor survived their youth. But at least things were clear: “boys will be boys,” we thought. Well, not anymore.
While the Friday night streets filled with drunken rampage, young boys locked themselves in their rooms and filled their diaries with notes on the comparative merits of Jehovah pullovers vs. Nike shoes, on whether love meant holding a girl’s hair while she vomits, all written in such painstaking detail that the subject of their thoughts probably would have run away screaming “you freak!” So the young boys kept it to themselves. And they certainly would have for the rest of their lives if one of them hadn’t suddenly decided that he’d had enough not being able to share his musical inclinations with others. So he neatly gathered all his words and songs into a demo which he sent to his favourite label: “They were the first ones to hear my music. Not even my mom had heard my songs at that time.” The rest of course, is history.
Gothenburg native Jens Lekman was discovered by US label Secretly Canadian in 2002. His two EPs ‘Rocky Dennis’ and ‘Maples Leaves’ went straight to the Swedish top 20 and received critical acclaim from the rest of the world. In 2003, the Swedish Elle enthused over the new sensation (“He is only 23 but already vrt pophopp. He typing if heart and pain and singing them with inlevelse and fondness. Moreover is he sweet. “-as roughly translated by one online engine-), waking up the nation to the fact that Sweden had its brand new 15th sexiest man. Strangely enough, Lekman didn’t use this opportunity to start a “give it to me baby” rapping career and he didn’t turn either into a born-again-Christian lecturing people about all the vices he’d already enjoyed to satiety. He is still in the phonebook and the girls are never as real as in his notebook.
Since the release of his first LP ‘When I said I wanted to be your dog’, the visionary brittle-hearted boys and psycho girls who first supported him now have to share the fruits of his talent with a wider audience. This collection of songs recorded between 2000 and 2004 demonstrates Lekman’s magical sense of observation and razor-sharp lyrical accuracy, which allow him to depict in vivid detail the everyday but never banal events we thought were exclusive to our own life stories: who else would ask “did you eat your banana from seven eleven? ” (‘Tram#7 to Heaven’) or make “Jehovah” rhyme with “pull-over” while singing a Happy Birthday song (“they are offering eternal suffering, eternal life, but you say no ” -‘Happy Birthday dear friend Lisa’-). The songs are autobiographical (“most of it is true. I make up the boring stuff, for example I don’t know any songs by Bacharach / David… “) but always universal, thanks to his strict writing ethics: “I just don’t like metaphors that much. That thing that bands always say: “people can interpret the songs anyway they want”. That doesn’t go for my songs, I usually write about everything exactly as it is. ”
His hyperrealism is often diffused through a prism of dark humour to soften the otherwise surgical or painful truth (“Yeah I got busted so I used my one phone call to dedicate a song to you on the radio
” -‘You are the light’-). But the main attraction and charm of his writing is undoubtedly when his heart takes the lead, because that is when realism turns into lyricism (“she said let’s put a plastic bag over our heads, and then kiss and stuff until we get dizzy and fall on the bed
” -‘a Higher Power’-).
Both these characteristics have rightfully won him comparisons with Morrissey and Smog.
Jens Lekman has also been compared to Sondre Lerche, but that is probably because he is the only other Scandinavian people can name. Or because they both avoid writing in their native tongues, though Lerche’s patchy English doesn’t compare to Lekman’s extraordinary command of it. “Swedish is, contrary to what people seem to think, not a very sexy language. For example, “I love you” in Swedish sounds like throwing up. Also, I don’t have a distinct dialect, which is absolutely necessary. Imagine the Streets without that Cockney accent… This is why no bands from Stockholm sing in Swedish, they would just end up sounding like the news on TV. “
And if Lerche compensates with his melodic genius, Lekman’s musical talent is never left far behind. As the maestro of DYI songwriting, he has heavily relied on sampling, but has also since learnt to take this art to new heights. ‘A Higher Power’ is the most striking example: the strings and beat convey the inseparable quiet warmth and sense of emergency of romantic love. “I just felt that the theme of the song needed a majestic sound to it and was reminded of the intro of Blue Boy’s “So Catch Him”, so I sampled the strings “. The pulsating effect of the song is not accidental either: “at first I actually tried to add a real heartbeat from a sound effects album, but the heart had the wrong rhythm to it “.
His perfectionism sometimes leads to surprising results, as for ‘Do you remember the Riots?’ “There is a totally different version of ‘Do you remember the riots’ that sounded more like ‘Maple Leaves’ with lots of sampled strings. I worked on it a long time but never really got it working so in the end I just invited a friend over, opened the windows and sang it a capella. I’ve finished the other version of it since and I’m releasing it as a free mp3 soon. The thing is that I never intended to release those demo versions; someone just put them out on the Internet without asking. And when the album came out people hated me for changing arrangements etc… Since then no-one, not even my record labels, get to hear the songs before they are 100% finished. “
If sampling has allowed Lekman to team up with luminaries such as Calvin Johnson ( the early ‘Pocketful of money’ demo mixes Johnson’s haunting vocals from Beat Happening’s ‘Gravedigger Blues’ with Lekman’s own youthful cry), outside creative input has been so far limited. All songs are “written, performed and recorded by Jens Lekman”. “I don’t like working with people who think they know anything about music. But right now I’m in contact with my old music teacher from 3rd grade. She’s bought everyone in her class a ukulele and I’m thinking of putting together an orchestra of kids with ukuleles. It’s bound to fail of course but that’s how I seek external creative input if at all. ”
So has his success changed his life?
One thing is sure, it hasn’t changed his writing approach. His style is still dangerously autobiographical. The cathartic virtue of the process is all the more efficient as he believes that life will end up imitating art: “I’m heavily disappointed by how some things turn out in my life, so I sometimes make it sound a little better than it is. But most of it is true. I used to think that tortured artists produced the best art. But then I discovered that if I wrote songs about my own torture I would end up even more miserable. My music controls me more than I control my music. So if I write a song that says everything’s hunky dory and I can make it credible enough, I’ll end up actually believing it myself. ”
The danger of being so open in the public eye is that life sometimes catches up with art: “The girl from ‘Psychogirl’ actually wrote me a letter that hurt me really bad. And even though she completely misinterpreted what I was saying in the song I have full respect for her writing it. The song should be called ‘Psychoboy’, it’s basically about me and how I don’t want to have a relationship with someone who’s like me. I’d like to encourage people who think they’ve been portrayed in a bad manner to come up and spit in my face. Or write a song about me – like Eminem’s mom. ”
But that is no reason yet for Jens Lekman to want to depart from his introspective style, which after all is his trademark. Some may regret he doesn’t use his talent to serve the causes we like to think he privately defends. Because after all, he is “moreover sweet”. “It seems to confuse people. I once did an interview about ‘Do you remember the riots’ where the journalist started yelling at me because she wanted the song to have a hidden political statement and had stayed up all night analysing the lyrics. And I just kept repeating: no it’s just a love song… I think the Hidden Cameras are good at that. The way they take gay issues or gender issues and turn them into stories and eventually just beautiful love songs. I would like to think I’m on a crusade to spread some kind of optimism in this world of cynicism… and you don’t need to shout it. I found a gravestone when I was walking around in Bloomington last week that said something like “Doris Macdonald 1932 – 20xx …1999 – she was an optimist”. That inspired me a lot. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I never understood what love the Beatles are thinking of with ‘All you need is Love’, I would very much like them to tell me the story that made them feel that way. I’m not here to save the world but if I can just save Göteborg, or make two teenagers in a small town in Norway fall in love… then it’s worth it. ”
As long as there are girls, Jens Lekman will be writing love songs. Unless… “I’ve been waiting for a girl to write a song for me. I have so many songs written about specific people I’ve met and no one’s ever written a song for me. ”
So, all that for that?
Well, I suppose it always is.