Even 15 years on, “You Are the Light” might be the best thing Lekman’s ever done.
Being a wedding singer has to be a strange gig. Belting standard after standard you didn’t write, getting paid to play a few tunes before wandering about with strangers and bearing witness to a uniquely inspiring love and passion every weekend—and knowing how commonplace it truly is. But if you were going to hire a musician to perform at your reception, you probably wouldn’t have picked Jens Lekman on the basis of his debut When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog, the perfect introduction to the world’s most adorably mopey melodramatic.
The Gothenburg native wrote with a Dylan-worthy eye for detail and Whitney Houston-levels of wounded romance from day one. Opener “Tram #7 to Heaven” seems to be referring to a lover ascending to the pearly gates, but instead is about a gal flaking on him in favor of a train trip to do some shopping. But thanks to Lekman’s heartbreak-on-sleeve style, it might as well be the same. “If You Ever Need a Stranger (To Sing at Your Wedding),” obstinately starts as an offer to lounge through “Bacharach or David/ Every stupid love song that’s ever touched your heart” but soon turns into him openly weeping “I would cut of my right arm to be someone’s lover.” Jesus Jens, they just want you to sing “All You Need Is Love,” not bawl into the champagne. “Happy Birthday, Dear Friend Lisa” follows a rotten trip around the sun for his buddy Lisa; stuck at home, doing spring cleaning and fending off brimstone preaching Jehovah’s witnesses. But Lekman looks on with even more despair. “I love you!/ But I would never kiss your lips/ ‘cause there’s a friendship.”
If When I Said sounds like a bunch of shut-in, lily-livered whinging, well, it is, but he undercuts his own whining by skewering himself at every turn. The warbly acapella number “Do You Remember the Riots?” has him pulled along by an activist girlfriend to the Iraq War protests in 2001. He sees his face on TV “red as a lobster,” realizing he’s only here to impress his fiery companion, and failing spectacularly. “I’m not a political fighter/ And I don’t even have cigarette lighter,” he sings as he flees. His pushover status is cemented even when he does get lucky on the hushed folk of “The Cold Swedish Winter.” It’s an ode to gonorrhea, chili and an upcoming ice age as Jens is completely dominated by a girl who whisks him away as he shovels snow. He recalls the apocalyptic visions of the Baltic Sea from Cliff Richards and Lou Reed as he’s seduced (“Lou had surely met her”.) “Shhh please be quiet, I know you don’t want me, but please deny it,” she whispers as a petrified Lekman tries not to wake her parents in the room below.
Then there’s “Psychogirl” (“she’ll remain anonymous”) who Lekman meets at the post office–how impeccably Swedish. But she turns out to be, well, a psycho: “They are drawn to me mysteriously,” he sighs over a droning guitar and chiming mandolin. It’s much more empathetic than it first seems with Lekman trying to explain “If I’d be your psychologist, who would be the psychologist’s psychologist?” But he’s not above completely debasing himself on the altar of love. The title track has him pleading “when I said I wanted to be your dog, I wasn’t coming on to you/ I just wanted to lick your face” He (mostly) wants to be a lap dog, a best friend to be carried around and petted. “I’ll be chasing every single lark” he sings as a plush guitar line brings a chilly night in. Closer “A Higher Power” is Belle and Sebastian on a shoestring, with Lekman showing off his eventual Avalanches-inspired sampling spree, plucking the rushing strings from Blueboy’s morose ‘90s chamber pop single “So Catch Him.” He’s finally found the perfect girl, though she’s wearing a Nietzsche t-shirt to church, having him clean up her vomit and suggesting they cover their heads in plastic bags before making out.
Even in the giddy (but short lived) happiness of “A Higher Power,” Lekman paints himself as a dandelion seed. He’s tossed this way and that by the wind as other folks around him actually plant their destinies. Every woman, every friend, hell even Sweden itself seems more assured of its place in the world than him, merrily controlling their own fate. But, funny enough, it was Lekman who broke out, moving on physically, if not emotionally. This was the record that saw him picked up by Secretly Canadian (who excluded one of his early charms, “Maple Leaves” on the reissue, the bastards!) and propelled him into cult status.
That coming transition was best suggested and illuminated by the hyper-romantic jam “You Are The Light (By Which I Travel Into This and That)”. Even 15 years on, “You Are the Light” might be the best thing he’s ever done. It’s the distillation of every schmaltzy love poem he ever languished over, curated by tasteful strings and a wall of golden horns. The interplay of the chorus changes every time the melody swoons to the forefront, so captivating and effortless that it makes Jens’ ridiculous rom-com actions (from jail he “used my one phone call to dedicate a song to you”) as rational and justified. It’s the gateway drug into a rose-colored, tear-spewing world. It’s easy to mishear the lyrics as “You are the light by which I travel into this unnatural life,” which might have better captured Lekman’s strange route from When I Said. He’d pleasurably plunderphonic his way to critical acclaim within three years, release a slew of postcards as songs, crowdsource ideas for new tunes and write odes to hot-wiring ferris wheels all in his beautiful loser charm. Lisa would show up again, her self-determination closing out his most recent album Life Will See You Now, where he samples “Happy Birthday” and gets a part-time gig as a wedding singer (no word on if he’s practiced self-mutilation at any of those things). In fact, the only thing that Lekman didn’t seem to predict was his own startling but well-earned success. You’re oh-so-dramatic (and amazing) Jens.