There’s a deep romanticism to everything, with a grounded sense of balance.
“The wind is like a string section,” are the last words Jens Lekman sings on Life Will See You Now. That seems to be how Lekman observes the entire world: every buzzing piece of electronics, the movements of nature, the couple laughing to each other on the sidewalk, each part is another element from which to fashion a song.
That’s been Lekman’s shtick for a while now. After his breakout The Night Falls Over Kortedala, he became known for his precisely detailed lyrics, paired with gorgeously ornamented pop. His full-length output has been sporadic since Kortedala in 2007, but he reinforced his knack for small stories woven into catchy melodies with his Postcards series, a marathon songwriting test where Lekman wrote a song a week. It seems that the Postcards have strengthened Lekman, as the experiment has now birthed Life Will See You Now, which has Lekman penning a book’s-worth of short stories that are startlingly realistic and as excellent in lyrical quality as they are in harmony.
Life Will See You Now begins with a sort of origin for Lekman. He travels back to a Swedish summer when he was 16, featuring long conversations with a doubting Mormon missionary. Lekman and the missionary sit and discuss the Book of Mormon before turning to life in general. Lekman admits his motivation: “I just want to listen to peoples’ stories/ …My friends say ‘Just be a shrink then’/ But I don’t know, I don’t think I’ll have the grades.” Lekman sounds a bit dejected, like his newfound buddy, before the music suddenly picks up from its dirge into a Beatles-like keyboard solo where Lekman buoyantly sings “I’m serving you!” flipping the title “To Know Your Mission” from discussions of religion and social work to Lekman’s view on what he must do as a musician: “In a world of mouths, I want to be an ear.”
And that’s how this album works, Lekman introducing things on simple terms before revealing grander intentions, whether they be lyrical or musical. Like a pop-up book, it takes a bit of movement for the the art to burst into its full 3D. “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel” might be the best example of Lekman’s phrases starting small before evolving into something majestic. Lekman sings a sweet duet with English singer Tracey Thorn, of Everything but the Girl fame, trying to cheer Thorn. “Life called and wanted its dreams back,” Lekman sighs, before he and Thorn decide the best way to cast away the shadows is to “do something illegal!” And that they do, sneaking into a fairground at night and stealing a ride on the Ferris wheel thanks to Thorn’s “hotwiring talents.” The instrumentation is balmy and danceable, but with a slight sense of melancholy. It never threatens to overtake the song. Whether Lekman and Thorn’s carnival shenanigans are fiction or not, the song turns into a beautiful metaphor for self-care in the midst of a stormy life. The Ferris wheel doesn’t take Lekman and Thorn anywhere, doesn’t transport Thorn away from her troubles physically, but the motion by itself is enough to brighten up their lives, even if it’s just for a moment. And, at least for the duo and the joyous keyboards, that’s enough.
The following song, “What’s that Perfume that You Wear?,” takes the reverse position, telling one of Lekman’s more straightforward tales while heavily relying on a dynamic build and the music standing directly opposed to the lyrical content (at least on first glance). Lekman reminisces about an old love thanks to a whiff of passing perfume. “It’s got a sadness to it/ Knowing how it ended,” he laments. Only uncharacteristically stark guitar lines join him as he mourns before the chorus blossoms into something ebullient. Steel drums, marimba and cowbells all suddenly join the mournful Lekman, and he can’t help but dance.
Lekman does indulge in pure tearjerkers twice on Life Will See You Know, but even those are sneakily subverted. “How Can I Tell Him” and “Postcard #17” deal with sheer pop depression in vastly different ways. “Postcard #17” is more direct in its sadness, but boosts the somber mode with clanking bells and brief rays of optimism. Lekman attempts to spill his feelings of depression, fear and loneliness onto a scrap of paper, but emotional writer’s block stops him. As those catchy bells come in, Lekman finally pushes his fears onto the page and sees them for what they are: “fucking ridiculous.”
“How Can I Tell Him” might be the most beautiful track on the album, with shimmering mandolin singing along with guitar and light piano. Lekman sings from the view of a man in love with his best friend. Things start with his BFF falling asleep on his shoulder on a train ride and a memory of how he let his guard down “when Sandra left him and I held him when he cried.” These are small details, but they pile up into a devastating portrait of repressed love. “It’s all deep within me/ The way a man should be,” decides Lekman’s character, but as he parts with his unrequited love they share an adorable and brutal moment, “He shouts ‘later dude’/ I think ‘yeah, I love you too’”.
Meanwhile, “Wedding in Finistère” serves as the album’s emotional compass. It’s the best possible mix between Paul Simon, Mariah Carey and Men at Work, a slice of sheer pop delight with a deep, but hopeful, emotional gut-punch. As the title suggests, Lekman is playing in a wedding band and, after the rehearsal, he comes across the bride on a pier, chain-smoking. They ask each other for advice, with Lekman laughing. “Marry and regret it…/ Whether you marry or you don’t, either way you’ll wish you hadn’t.” It seems harsh, but the bride’s view on the whole affair is startling. “I feel like a five-year-old, watching the 10-year-olds shoplifting/ A 10-year-old watching the 15-year-olds French kissing.” She goes on until she sees the “30-year-olds vanishing.” It seems depressing, but thanks to Lekman’s direction and the bouncing music, he finds something beautiful in the entropy.
And we come back to the breeze sounding like violins. The downtempo closer “Dandelion Seed” weaves together every theme Lekman touches upon on Life Will See You Now. Chaos, love and insecurity set to lovely melodies. Over a serene mix of plucked guitars, violins, synths and accordions, Lekman gets ready for an emotional and weather-based storm. He buys “water and candles like the prepper I’ve always been.” He also agonizes over his love: “I always waited for the worst/ While you just smiled and dived in head first.” There’s no solid conclusion, the storm does roll in while Lekman watches and analyzes his romantic faults. But that natural music is there to catch him.
Like a master painter, Lekman creates these wondrous, but realistic visions through disparate elements. There’s a deep romanticism to everything, with a grounded sense of balance. Like one of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, Lekman traces everything with a palpable sadness, even while every one of his creations is fit to burst from joy. It’s a bit like real life that way.