Jens Lekman is a sardonic-romantic singer-songwriter from Gothenburg, Sweden, who records for the indie label Secretly Canadian in the U.S. He's 27 years old. Last October 9, he released Night Falls Over Kortedala, the third CD he's issued in America, after 2004's When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog and 2005's Oh You're So Silent Jens, a collection of odds and ends. Night Falls got a shower of critical praise upon its release, finishing 17th in the 2007 Idolator Pop Critics Poll, a survey I conducted. He's funny and dreamy. My girlfriend, like many indie-rock fans, has a huge crush on him.
I was on the tail end of an all-nighter the first time I put on Night Falls Over Kortedala, and I hated it instantly. I'd likely have hated anything that particular Sunday afternoon, but certain artists are especially hateable in this condition, and when you play the most bountiful Jens Lekman album for the first time under those circumstances, he becomes one of them. But I'd seen the 9.0 rating on Pitchfork that kicked off the critical fusillade, and I'd had the promo for a week. So why not listen to it right then, the precise moment it would sound worst?
It's not as if I wanted to like the record. I'd already sifted through his prior albums and found his cutesy-windy titles and weedy voice off-putting. In my half-assed way, I'd come to regard Lekman as a menace—too winky, too smirky, too affected, too knowing. There were a zillion other albums to get to, and even if the guy had a card up his sleeve, what was I really missing by not exposing myself to it? Sure enough, Night Falls Over Kortedala sounded in that instance like the most grating album imaginable. But I also noticed how instant, how thorough this response was, and I knew I had to play it again at some point, just to see if I was right. I waited a month, got plenty of rest, and played it again one afternoon. Not bad. I kept putting it on. Within a week, it had landed in my Top 10.
Lekman is such a dazzling soundsmith you can pretend that his lyrics are completely beside the point. He loves letting the aural seams show—it's his favorite sonic trick. The split-second silence that marries the ends of the piano loop forming the backbone of "I'm Leaving You Because I Don't Love You" gives the song a hesitancy that the piled-on piano cascades, synth bass, handclaps, squealing maiden ooohs, and fake strings take good musical advantage of, as well as buoying the lyric. There are lurching tonal shifts everywhere, with backing tracks suddenly speeding up or slowing down; "Sipping on the Sweet Nectar" features a jolting key change. The most dizzying of these tricks is when he stutters a second of the final verse of "Kanske Är Jag Kär I Dig," opening the arrangement into a cornucopia of strings, guitars, and glockenspiel that prefigure a spectacular, jazzy brass coda, its echoes of WWII-era standards like Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train" thrilling to hear in this context.
The kind of intricate thinking Lekman does as a composer doesn't necessarily translate beyond the songs. "I'm terrible when it comes to putting together albums," Lekman tells me over the phone from his hotel room in Austin, Texas, whose popular annual trade convention is covered elsewhere in this issue. "My solution was to bring a couple friends together and show them about 30 songs. They saw the connections so much more clearly than I do, though I knew 'And I Remember Every Kiss' and 'Sipping on the Sweet Nectar' [Kortedala's second track] worked together; I threw that key change into 'Sweet Nectar' so they'd fit."
Night Falls Over Kortedala was recorded in Lekman's tiny one-room apartment, where he lived for five years. "The landlord officially called it the worst place in Gothenberg when I moved in," Lekman says. "He told me that the previous tenant died in the bathtub. I asked why he told me this, and he said, 'I thought you'd like to hear it.' There're a lot of mentally sick people there, a lot of unemployed people. When they closed down the mental hospitals in Sweden in the early '90s, they moved a lot of them into apartments. I basically stayed inside; I'd gone out and been attacked, mugged. I didn't like that place very much, but it definitely made me focus on the music for sure. Every time I had a piano tuner they complained about the acoustics, but when I recorded, everything sounded perfect."
Lekman often works from titles. "They give me a way of working with music so that it comes together [with the lyric]—I like to work with two sounds that aren't supposed to meet." Take "And I Remember Every Kiss," the album's opener: "For that, I had a lyric written down," he said. "At first it sounded completely different [from the album version]. I think I had a sound in my head, but it took a long time before I found that string sample. When I found it, everything fell into place."
The problem with concentrating solely on the musical aspects of Night Falls Over Kortedala is that—duh—the lyrics are totally the point. "I'm a prisoner of this moment with you in my arms," goes the clincher of "Into Eternity," and then, "I have a love-for-this-world kind of world/That will break my heart/A kind of flaw/That reconstructs and remodels the past." He loves you, he lives in his own head too much to entirely trust it; he's the thing, he stands outside the thing.
The album's most tender love songs are, respectively, an ode to a lesbian friend he beards for over dinner with her father ("A Postcard to Nina") and a hymn for his hairdresser ("Shirin"). If that screams overquirk, it's understandable. But Lekman is old-fashioned in one crucial way: He doesn't waste big musical drama on mundane emotions. Every musical turn matches its lyric. The clip-clopping rhythms and faded-luster clarinet part on "Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo" are precisely the soundtrack you'd expect of a song with that title; "If I Could Cry (It Would Feel Like This)" piles its simple, melodramatic title phrase (the entire lyric) atop endless string surges until it crescendos to the sun.
Over the phone, Lekman answers each of my questions graciously, even when he's heard the question a zillion times. "I hear that a lot from journalists," he said when I told him that I'd hated Kortedala at first but grew quickly to love it. "A lot of times, interviewers ask me about that. That might be a part of evaluating a record, I guess." I thank him publicly for not even having a yawn to stifle.