Jens Lekman describes his new record playfully, but also honestly, as “a thirties-crisis disco album; it’s an existentialist record, about seeing the consequences of your choices”. Across three studio albums, the Swedish singer/songwriter and musician has proven not only his flair for telling very personal stories with a sharp self-awareness, but also his skill for balancing depth of emotional expression with droll and often self-deprecating detail. It’s a winning pop combination.
His fourth, Life Will See You Now is a typical Lekman album in several ways: sly humour is key to its heartfelt nature; it inverts pop’s writing norm by making songs with sad concerns sound happy and songs with a happy subject sound sad; and it plays with notions of identity and the self. Life Will See You Now is expansive, the upbeat sound of a revitalised Lekman, who is just one of many characters in his new stories about the magic and messiness of different kinds of relationships. It’s also the result of deliberate steps he took to create this fresh sound.
Although Lekman is present in all of the songs on Life Will See You Now, it’s sometimes as a listener or spectator, rather than solely as the central active figure. Male characters get more of the spotlight than before. Lekman’s previous records have been female-centric, “I wanted to see what would happen if I wrote about men. It was inspiring at first, but writing about masculinity went down a very dark path. And there was a sadness that was very real; I had trouble finding stories that weren’t horribly depressing” he admits. “How Can I Tell Him” is one of a few songs saved from that shelved plan, a touching ode to male friendship that addresses the behavioural boundaries drawn around expressions of intimacy for generations of men.
Another big choice was a decision to experiment with different kinds of rhythms – disco, calypso, samba and bossa nova all get a bespoke twirl in the spotlight – and so he called on producer Ewan Pearson (M83, The Chemical Brothers, Goldfrapp) to help realise his new songs. “I was looking for something more rhythmical. That was just what was intriguing me at the time – how you structure rhythms and build changes and time signatures. For me, not being trained in music, to learn a few of the tricks was very fascinating.”
The alluringly offbeat lilt of “Our First Fight” is a perfect example of this subtle shift. More obviously upbeat are “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?”, which features a steel pans sample from Ralph MacDonald’s “The Path” of 1978 – “one of my favourite records ever,” enthuses Lekman – “To Know Your Mission”, whose jaunty, sing-along chorus belies its serious subject (self-doubt and indecision versus self-belief and faith) and the irresistibly buoyant “How We Met, The Long Version”, a disco-pop cracker with strings and piano that samples Jackie Stoudemire’s 1983 track, “Don’t Stop Dancin’”.
The writing of Life Will See You Now was somewhat of an attempt to overcome periods of self-doubt, a process helped by Lekman’s two interim projects – Postcards, in which he committed himself to writing and releasing one song every single week in 2015 and Ghostwriting, where he asked other people for their stories and wrote songs around them, rather than his own experiences. “There was a part of me that was really sick of this Jens Lekman character,” he confesses, “and I wanted to write myself out of my songs. “ Jens laughs: “After I did the Ghostwriting project I was able to let that go, and also realized how important it is to be in your own songs to be able to communicate an emotion.”
It may be very much inspired by stories told to him by friends and random acquaintances, but for Lekman, Life Will See You Now is still “a very personal record”. In “To Know Your Mission”, the perky Euro-pop number set in August of 1997 that pictures him – or at least, a character called Jens – as a teenager contemplating his future, one line that’s particularly pertinent to his ideas about this singer/songwriter business stands out. “In a world of mouths, I want to be an ear,” croons Lekman, sweetly. “If there’s a purpose to this, then that’s why God put me here.” It’s not a statement of religious belief, just a simple recognition of what he was in some way called to do. Life Will See You Now proves how right he was to listen.