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Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala

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Artist: Jens Lekman

Album: Night Falls Over Kortedala

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Jan. 7, 2008

More than anything else, what I want music to do is to say “no” to America’s culture of consumerism and militarism, and hopefully also propose some alternative vision of a better world. This doesn’t mean I want to hear more music that’s directly political; what I want is a spirit of rebellion that’s in the music somewhere, and probably not in the most obvious place. This is, I realize, a really vague idea, and one that’s open to a lot of very personal hemming and hawing. Maybe you’ll read it and think it’s complete silliness, and I can’t blame you for feeling that way. But that’s what attracted me to punk and metal as a kid, and part of what attracts me to indie rock today.

Sometimes it seems strange that I would want – and get – this sort of rebellious spirit from indie rock, the audience of which is mostly white, educated and middle- to upper-class. And the insular and snobby indie communities in many cities and on many web pages are actually about as conservative as you can get. Their members are often just upper-middle-class elites protecting their status by avoiding music that the unwashed masses enjoy. (There have been times when I personally have deserved this criticism.) But if I want music to reject mainstream American culture, isn’t it good that indie kids embrace non-mainstream music? Well, not if they don’t do it for the right reasons.

This is an extremely complex situation, and I don’t want to seem absolutist about it in any direction – hell, I like pop songs as much as anyone does, and obviously, there are plenty of indie rock listeners who don’t fit the stereotypes. But my point is that I think there’s a tension between indie rock that genuinely is trying to say something different, and indie rock that just contains a veneer of weirdness to separate it from mainstream pop. In the former case, indie is being all it can. In the latter case, it’s just a market niche, like easy listening or adult contemporary or something. It’s pop music, only with a little bit of guitar feedback, and lyrics that don’t make sense.

I mention all this because my initial impulse is to be suspicious of Jens Lekman, who makes all the indie kids (I can’t even say “rock” anymore, since Lekman’s music isn’t rock at all) swoon with music that initially sounds for all the world like the Carpenters and early Bee Gees. At least at first, there isn’t much to separate Night Falls Over Kortedala from the AM-pop of old – Lekman’s hooks and simple couplets are front and center here. But, beyond the production and the songs (which, and let’s get this out of the way right now, are pretty damn amazing, and are a quantum leap beyond his previous Oh You’re So Silent Jens), there’s that weirdness that’s a major source of Lekman’s appeal for the indie crowd. So what’s going on there? Why the hell is the indie world so infatuated with a guy who sounds like the Carpenters?

Well, the biggest difference between good indie pop and bad indie pop is that the good stuff raises questions – about what it is, or about what people can be, or about something else. For example, the Magnetic Fields (to whom Lekman is often compared) pose challenges about what pop songs mean, and they possess the self-awareness to avoid easy categorization. In other words, they aren’t just making slightly left-of-center pop music for the indie crowd; they're honestly trying to do something different. The bad stuff is just insufferable junk for dorky rich kids to sing “la la la” to.

Night Falls Over Kortedala is great indie pop. It’s a record that wonders about itself and forges connections to other people, despite its apparent naïveté. Parts of it sound like the Carpenters, yes, but there’s a big difference between saying “the Carpenters” and saying “the Carpenters?” Lekman is doing the latter. The album brims with uncertainty – not the sort of uncertainty that comes from not knowing what you’re doing, but the uncertainty that comes with knowing that music is an enormous beast that no one can ever really domesticate.

And so we get tons of weird little touches, like the awkwardly speeding tempo in the bridge of “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” which lurches uncomfortably like the bit of turbulence at the end of a long flight that reminds you how pleasant the rest of it had been.

Significantly, most of these weird touches clearly are not tacked on at the end of the songwriting process – they cut right to the heart of the songs. There aren’t any samples in “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” but the awkwardness Lekman achieves there is pretty similar to the seams he shows with samples elsewhere on the record. Take “I’m Leaving You Because I Don’t Love You” – the song is built around a Tough Alliance sample that already cuts against the sweetness in Lekman’s voice. The rigidity of the beat doesn’t quite match the sample, either, and just in case you might think that the disconnect is an accident, Lekman also adds some disruptive swooping string glissandi.

To me, this isn’t just self-conscious weirdness – instead, it reminds us that life is a lot more ambiguous and complex than most pop songs make it out to be. On Night Falls Over Kortedala, we see pop, but Lekman has erected a screen in front of it by reminding us that pop is often just a way to make sense of feelings that are too complex to understand.

And in case that point weren’t clear enough from the music, it’s also in the lyrics, which also initially appear to be thoughtless, but turn out to be anything but. For example, the chorus to “Your Arms Around Me” is simple enough: Lekman just sings “You put your arms around me” over and over. It’s just about the emptiest pop-song cliché ever. But the verses give it an entirely different context: Lekman stands in the kitchen cutting food when his girlfriend sneaks up behind him and innocently hugs him, causing him to accidentally cut off part of his finger. She reassures him that “What’s broken can always be fixed / What’s fixed will always be broken” before hugging him again. It’s a brilliant moment, demonstrating both the silliness of pop-song tropes and the reasons they remain powerful, and it’s a perfect metaphor for the record itself.

Like the Magnetic Fields, then, Lekman’s asking questions about what pop songs can be, and about the way they fit into our lives. Lekman’s music suggests that our experiences are more complex than the pop songs we use to memorialize them, and that it’s best to see that complexity for what it is. In the beautiful “Shirin,” Lekman lovingly compares his hairdresser to “a drop of blood in my glass of milk.” That’s what his music is, too – it reminds us that we shouldn’t assume that the simple things are exactly what they seem.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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