Album cover courtesy of Jens Lekman
Album review by Caroline Moses
Jens Lekman’s album Life Will See You Now, released this February on Secretly Canadian, offers an unusually optimistic worldview in an uncertain time. Acting as a kind of foil for the bleakness that currently pervades our culture, both musically and otherwise, the record shows another way: listen carefully to the people you love, take care of each other, learn from your friends, and try to make peace with your life and its vicissitudes. While there is certainly a place for anger, righteous or otherwise, and sadness is normal and even healthy, being able to laugh at misfortune also deserves its day; Lekman gives it that day with his bouncy synths and corny rhymes that laugh with the people in his life, rather than at them.
The album opens with a Mormon missionary on assignment to Gothenburg, Sweden in 1997 hearing the news that Princess Diana has died. He’s a comical figure, but so too are the radio DJs doing the announcing (“He listens to the tragic news, followed by the top 10 tunes”) and the snarky youngsters at the hipster cafe across the street from his post (“coffee and hair dye raven black”). The cheerful synth tone and backing vocals, imitating the popular sound of the era, underscore the absurdity of the juxtaposition between the news the missionary has just heard and the songs that come after it. Suddenly, Jens, as a skeptical teenager, appears in the song as someone the missionary approaches, and their conversation lays out the thesis of the album. The missionary talks about the importance of “knowing your mission,” a delightful pun, and Jens responds with this profound explanation of why he wants to be a social worker if music doesn’t work out for him: “In a world of mouths/I want to be an ear.” His philosophy seems to be both to give council and to seek it from people he comes across in life.
The subsequent songs show this philosophy in action, as in each he tries to figure out how best to help people he encounters. “Evening Prayer” and “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel” both show Lekman attempting to connect with friends who are going through difficult times, unsure how to proceed but determined to be there for them. In “Evening Prayer,” his friend has recently had a tumor removed from his back, and while the content of the difficulty for his friend in “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel” is never clarified, it’s clear that she’s going through a tough time. In both these songs, Lekman tries to be sincere with his friends, but they just want to have fun. So Lekman lets his friends take the lead on how they want to interact with their struggles. His friend in “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel,” played by featuring artist Tracey Thorn, says, “If you’re gonna write a song about this, please don’t make it a sad song,” and he honors her request; the song, while not the best on the album, has a fun ambience.
As the album progresses, the songs become more closely related to his own life, including a series of romantic songs, “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?”, “Our First Fight,” and “How We Met, The Long Version.” While “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” is a song about heartbreak, it maintains the records sense of optimism; the kooky steel drum beat in the background and the repeated exclamation “it smells so good!/That sandalwood” almost make you forget that Lekman is recalling a memory that is tinged with the pain of lost love. He even says, “at least it was real/if it could hurt like that,” refusing to let his sadness ruin what was once a beautiful moment.
“Our First Fight,” on the other hand, is about a sour moment turned sweet by its resolution. Lekman deftly illustrates the tedium of trying to maintain small talk in the midst of an emotional moment: “No I haven’t seen season three/God, I wish that you would just look at me.” Then, as his fears are lifted, the music also opens up, as if a breath that was being held for the first half of the song is finally let out, and he describes a reconciliation that nearly brought me to tears the first time I heard it: “You mouth out ‘I love you’/the way a parent spells out ice cream/I-L-O-V-E-Y-O-U, like there’s kids in the room.”
“How We Met, The Long Version” is similarly sweet, but with a certain silly edge to it. It opens with a bouncy, cheesy synth sound with computer strings overlaid. The song then proceeds to tell the entire story of the universe as “the story of how we met”. The cutesiness of this idea would be over-the-top were it not for Lekman’s phrasing, which remains winking throughout (“a party started in the ocean/trilobites and crustaceans/a Cambrian explosion”).
Sandwiched between these two love songs is “Wedding in Finistere”, a story which is in a way also about love, although not directly and not love in Lekman’s life. With its upbeat horn section and syncopated rhythm, it portrays life as a series of shocks, throwing a person off but ultimately propelling them into the next stage of life. This is best demonstrated by the chorus, where the bride describes her mindset at her rehearsal dinner as being “like the five-year-old watching the ten-year-olds shoplifting.” This song really grasps the idea that none of us really know what we’re doing without beating the audience over the head with it. It also manages to make this anxiety sound as fun as it is stressful, as the wedding party continues.
After his series of songs about love, Lekman pares back the arrangements and opts for a quieter, more interior sound for the final three tracks on the record. Lyrically, these songs are also more internally focused. “How Can I Tell Him” is about his struggle with expressing love for his friend, addressing issues of toxic masculinity without ever veering into a lecture. By keeping it about his own shortcomings when it comes to expressing affection for his male friends, Lekman makes the song thought-provoking without interrogating the listener. Then, on “Postcard #17,” Lekman addresses some unnamed fear and his attempts to avoid thinking about it, which he determines are counterproductive. While Lekman claims to be facing his fear, he notably never clarifies what it is, as if even in a song about acknowledging fear he is still unable to do it. This is the quietest song on the album, and ends with an echoing repetition of “It’s all in your head,” creating the effect of placing us inside Lekman’s brain as he attempts to reassure himself.
The final song, “Dandelion Seed,” picks up the theme of fear, as Lekman laments all of the things he hasn’t done because he was afraid to take a risk. Taking a much more mournful tone than in the rest of the record, Lekman here lets the darkness peek into his otherwise relentlessly optimistic treatise on how to live your life. Apologizing to someone named Lisa, either a friend or a lover, for his negative mentality, it seems as though Life Will See You Now on the whole is a product of trying to learn from her to “just smile and dive in head first”. “Dandelion Seed” especially informs “Wedding in Finistere,” when he tells the bride, who’s having cold feet, “Marry and regret it/Don’t marry, regret it too/Whether you marry or you don’t, either way you’ll wish you hadn’t”. This is meant to be encouragement that if regret is inevitable, you may as well take the risk. In “Dandelion Seed”, we see Lekman reaping the fruits of not taking risks, especially risks involving connecting with others, continuing the themes of “How Can I Tell Him.”
Overall, the record has a clear message: even or perhaps especially when it’s difficult, listen to and appreciate the people you love, and accept life’s challenges with a healthy sense of humor. Lekman expresses this both lyrically and musically, with his use of off-kilter rhythms and bright, bouncy synth. While it might be hard to laugh sometimes in a world full of pain, Lekman sets us all the challenge of leaning into our feelings and responding to the world with love. A tall order, but made a little easier with such catchy tunes in the background.