Music: Swede's sweet smell of success
Jens Lekman is about to release his fourth album, and if he says he's full of trepidation about it, he has every reason to be.
The Swede's second album, Night Falls Over Kortedala, was close to the top of many critics end-of-year lists in 2007, and his name was frequently dropped by those keen to discover the best new music, but when his follow-up album, I Know What Love Isn't, emerged five years later, the sales weren't nearly as buoyant and he found himself playing to half-empty venues. The critics still adored him, but the public's fickle tastes cost him a lot of money.
"I was left with thousands of CDs on my hands," he says, speaking to Review from his home in Gothenburg, "and I found myself having to get rid of them, literally, so there was this awful experience of having to go to a landfill with this album that I had spent so long working on."
The experience was so traumatic that Lekman had bouts of serious writing block when it came to working on what would eventually become his new album, Life Will See You Now.
"I'd started to doubt my work on the previous album, but then when I played some of those songs in concert, everyone seemed to know every word and I could be a bit philosophical about it. Kortedala was a very upbeat album, whereas this was really downbeat and it just didn't appeal as much, but I know the songs were good."
And Lekman is in exemplary form yet again on his new album - whose title was picked by his girlfriend at the last moment. Anybody hankering for a collection of funny, wise and eclectic songs need look no further - these vignettes about lives less ordinary are likely to captivate if given a chance. There are songs about illness, mortality, lost love, arguments and the daily pleasures and pain common to us all.
Lekman is funny and forthright - this is a man, it should be remembered, who once recorded a song called 'I'm Leaving You Because I Don't Love You' - and whose latest album includes a track about someone who carries a tumour around with them in the way one normally holds a bag.
His singing voice is highly distinctive and lightly accented. He's not the sort of songwriter who favours a minimal approach - he's fond of brass and strings and backing vocals. And yet, there's little that's polished about his music - even when throwing the kitchen sink at it, Lekman still comes across as a lo-fi experimentalist.
But one of the reasons why those who've discovered him are so passionate about what he does is because his charmingly kooky personality shines through in songs. Speak to Lekman for even a short time, and there's something of a Scandinavian Woody Allen about him.
When talking about coming to terms with a bad break-up a few years ago, he says he turned to mastering push-ups. One can almost imagine the experience seeping into one of his songs. "I decided that the best way to cope was to do push-ups each and every day and to keep improving until it came naturally. I stopped when I was able to do 100 easily."
That obsessional personality trait was apparent last year when Lekman released a song every week. Each of the 52 songs were available for free on his website and the endeavour was his way of dealing with writer's block: rather than hone and re-hone a new composition, how about release it anyway and see what reaction it gets?
"Everybody warned me not to do it," he says, "but that almost made me want to do it even more. I thought it would be good just to get the songs out there because the way the industry works now, it can take years to get your album out, and this was a way around that."
He jokes that some have complained that his new album is "too happy" and he's long been one of those songwriters who can wrap the saddest lines in the jauntiest of music. Compatriots Abba were masters of that particular art, and he says he is flattered by the association.
"My friend and I were talking about 'Dancing Queen' recently. It's one of the saddest songs ever written, you know, because it comes from the perspective of someone looking on at someone who seems to have it all. My friend thinks it's a song about death - there's a real sense of mortality there. But, yeah, Abba could do the happy-sad thing so well."
Such talk about one of the giants of popular music gets Lekman on to a subject that has been bothering him of late. "There's so much nostalgia for music from the past," he says. "One of the most popular shows on Swedish TV right now is about popular artists covering their own big hit songs. And you've got all these big-name bands who are touring one of the albums in their catalogue - U2 [touring The Joshua Tree] being a prime example this year. I don't want music to be a museum."
Life Will See You Now is a slow-burner in the classic vein, but there are two songs that are likely to jump out immediately. The first, 'Hotwire the Ferris Wheel', sees the singer duet with Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn. Their voices mesh together beautifully. "Well, Tracey owed me a favour," he says, with a laugh. "I had sung with her on an album she released a few years ago. There's a line she sings, 'If you're gonna write a song about this/ Then please don't make it a sad song', and that's something a friend had said to me some time ago."
The other stand-out is lead single 'What's That Perfume That You Wear?' Its playful steel drums are borrowed from Ralph MacDonald's 1978 song, 'The Path'. "I love those calypso disco jams he did, and I played it all the time back when I was DJing. It's 17 minutes long and I became mesmerised by it."
The track is quintessential Lekman, not least when he sings, "Got a miniature shampoo bottle on my shelf/ From when we stayed at a hotel/ And one whiff of that and I'm back there with her/ Coming out of the shower/ She's standing there, fixing her hair."
"One of the nice things about songwriting," Lekman says, "is you can be inspired by absolutely anything."
Life Will See You Now is out on Friday. Jens Lekman plays Whelan's, Dublin, on March 28