In research for this column, I realised that Jens Lekman’s I Know What Love Isn’t was released just a matter of weeks before I started my first year in Exeter. Even as a self-confessed music-obsessed loser, listening to music was far from my main priority during my first term in halls. The vast majority of the albums I remember from 2012 came out in the long summer, or provided distraction during my A2 exams effort. Somehow I must have found time for I Know What Love Isn’t in that first term, because I remember it as my favourite album of the year.
Jens Lekman is a singer-songwriter from Gothenburg, Sweden. Falling into the poppiest faction of indie music, his second album (2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala) won Lekman plenty of fans. In comparison, the reception to I Know What Love Isn’t was distinctly muted. The album is undeniably a low key affair. Whereas the previous record is adorned with sumptuous instrumentation, his 2012 album is centred on Jens’ mellifluous voice, accompanied by piano and guitar with the occasional orchestral flourish.
The album’s tone is set by a short solo piano piece entitled Every Little Hair Knows Your Name. The sparse, mournful style of playing feels immediately reflective and melancholic. As if the album’s title didn’t already give it away, Jens has been unlucky in love. But the album is more than just another whiny break-up album, it is an account of Jens’ life and feelings after a relationship ended. His message is not entirely elucidated until the penultimate song, the title track, where he admits “I don’t know what love is, but I know what it isn’t.” This single phrase feels like the rallying call for the entire album: Jens is self-aware and knows he is not going to break any new ground regarding love as a concept, he simply wants to give an account of his own experience.
Along the way, tracks such as The World Moves On perfectly encompass the mind set of someone recently single, albeit in scenarios specific to Lekman. The World Moves On, the album’s centrepiece, juxtaposes Jens’ experience of an Australian forest fire with the collapse of a relationship. Against this backdrop, Jens puts every part of himself into his lyrics. The World Moves On sees moments of confessional wit such as “No one’s born an asshole, it takes a lot of hard work / But God knows I’ve worked my ass off to be a jerk” to frank honesty in the track’s refrain: “You don’t get over a broken heart / You just learn to carry it gracefully.” Every moment on the album is imbued with such sincerity that the album can only come across as refreshingly honest.
The album’s final track shares the name of the opener, but is now a fully-formed track, as though Lekman is finally ready to confide in his audience. Over the same melody, he laments writing songs after breaking up because every song he wrote was helplessly rooted in their relationship. Every chord he plays recalls his ex-girlfriend. With the gorgeous instrumentation throughout the album, this feels surprisingly believable.
Not all music benefits from flawless production, but the crisply record guitar and the sparing piano leave breathing room for Jens’ understated but emotive voice. The clean production ekes out all of these strengths from Lekman’s music. Considering against the mindless instrumental overload of his previous album, I Know What Love Isn’t is an example of restraint benefitting lyric-focused confessional music.