It’s basically a requirement for singer-songwriters to write forlornly about anguish, heartbreak, and regret. But for all the troubadours lamenting lost love, few come across as plaintively and earnestly as Swedish pop maestro Jens Lekman.
With his quavering voice, delicate English accent (he replaces the “th” in words with an “f”) and literal lyrics, Lekman acts as an unassuming mirror for the masses. He looks like us, has the same doubts as us, and fears the same things as us, so when he sings a line like, “What’s our mission?”, it feels like he’s asking the question on behalf of all of us. His heart is permanently on his sleeve, providing a unique emotional assurance for his fans.
That’s why the past five years have been so disconcerting. Lekman’s 2012 album, I Know What Love Isn’t, was a somber reflection on a failed relationship, representing a stylistic U-turn from his beloved 2007 release, Night Falls Over Kortedala. When his last album failed to receive the same high praise as Night Falls Over Kortedala, Lekman retreated to Sweden, making rare live appearances stateside and creating doubts about his future as a performer. He even took to his website to write about his struggles with writer’s block and anxiety.
Fortunately, Lekman is back with a new record, Life Will See You Now, even if he’s still dealing with feelings of diffidence in his work. It really makes you want to just give the guy a hug and remind him that everyone adores his music.
“It’s a complicated thing, because the love I have for myself is not the same as the love I receive from people,” says Lekman, who will play two sold-out shows at the Independent on February 28 and March 1. “Obviously, that can be unhealthy.”
Lekman spent most of his time working on Life Will See You Now evading the sadness of his life by writing himself out of his songs and appropriating the stories of friends, family members, and strangers. That approach stemmed from a project called Ghostwriting, where he transformed letters from his fans into songs. While he said the undertaking was a positive experience for his process, ultimately, he settled back on autobiography for Life Will See You Now.
“Even if I wrote a song about math or animals or whatever, there would still be the question, ‘Why did you write about that? And what does it say about you?’ ” Lekman says. “I’ve established a certain voice over my albums. It can be an obstacle, but in the end, I think it’s a strength, because I can build upon that voice, which is ultimately very much mine.”
Given the turmoil detailed in his writings, Life Will See You Now is a surprisingly upbeat production. The first single, “What’s That Perfume You Wear,” is a perky, Caribbean-calypso number. “Evening Prayer” is boosted by chirpy guitars and pulsating rhythms. And “How We Met” could be mistaken for a Daft Punk song off Random Access Memories. There are still austere, reflective moments, like the piano ballad “Postcard #17,” but for the most part, Life Will See You Now gives off a hopeful, upbeat vibe.
“Strangely, I had a lot of children’s songs in my head when I was making this album,” Lekman says. “Like these twee-funk creations. I wanted to incorporate the most rainbow-like melodies with some rhythmic movements.”
As always, Lekman gamely confronts his sorrows, both on his album and when discussing his life. Those woes have a localized feel here in the Bay Area, as Lekman is still coming to grips with the death of Barrett Clark, his former sound engineer who died in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire. Lekman plans on singing a song or two in honor of his late friend during his shows at the Independent.
It will surely be a painful moment for Lekman, yet he seems to draw inner strength from those situations. His fans may harbor concerns about Lekman’s well-being, particularly given how honest he is in speaking about his issues. In the end, though, he possesses a strange kind of fortitude, a resilience that belies his modest frame and quiet voice.
“You carry all these hurts and breakups with you forever,” Lekman says. “But there is this sort of joyful realization that the things that caused you pain were real. There is something beautiful and invigorating in holding onto that.”
Jens Lekman plays at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 28, and at 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 1, at the Independent. More info here.