When Jens Lekman masters the English language, he’ll be a hell of a songwriter. To explain: Jens Lekman’s debut, “When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog,” was just released in the United States last week. This charming guitarist and vocalist is already a hit in his native Sweden. He has drawn well-deserved comparisons to Morrissey (more for his voice and sense of humor than musical style) and to Belle and Sebastian (for his indie-pop feel and his record company’s faith in him).
His lyrics have a charming simplicity and odd imagery. Sometimes, however, the lyrics sometimes sound sillier than was probably intended, as evidenced by a song about a girl he dated: “I know your life has been a mess / You cried yourself to sleep as a child / In your mommy’s dress and your summerdress / But stop following me, psychogirl / I have enough problems to deal with on my own.” (The song is actually called “Psychogirl.”)
Certainly, when he gets the English poetics right, he’s got some amazingly sweet yet unconventional imagery, which he tends to sing lovingly to made-up women. Lekman has stated that he no longer sings about past relationships — he sings about relationships which haven’t happened yet, in hopes that they do. “Five years ago I wrote songs about bad stuff in the past,” he said in an interview with Italian webzine Indiepop. “Now I write songs about good stuff in the future!” His imaginary love interests probably find him quirky but charismatic. He sings, for example, with fond devotion, “At the Christmas party, I’ll hold your hair when you vomit,” over a background of Decembery strings on “A Higher Power.” Gross? A little. But sweet? Undeniably.
And he’s got the musical talent to go along with the imagery. His style shifts from the brassy Abba-esque on “You Are the Light (By Which I Travel into This and That)” to the subdued and very sweet on “Cold Swedish Winter,” an ode to a girl he met (wants to meet?) in a blizzard, to the bare acoustic and vocal of “Do You Remember the Riots?” about the 2001 Gothenburg EU Summit. Yet Lekman manages to hold the album together surprisingly well, even considering speedbumps like rhyming “chili” with “chilly.” The album flows well, with the differing genre-influences raising and lowering the album generally smoothly.
Oddly, because his lyrics are so hit-or-miss, Lekman almost suggests They Might Be Giants, themselves masters of intentionally silly-seeming but somewhat serious lyrics. Lekman’s ballad “Happy Birthday, Dear Friend Lisa” in particular could easily have been written by the Dial-A-Song duo from Lincoln, Mass., instead of this young Swedish man with a guitar. The line blurs between what is intentionally humorous and what could have been phrased a little better. If only the latter could have been excised from “When I Wanted to Be Your Dog,” the record would have been five times better and three times funnier.
Most striking throughout, musically and lyrically, is Lekman’s sincerity. Whether singing over emulated LP crackle with the whimsy of Nick Drake on the opening track, “Tram #7 to Heaven” or crooning about his love for eating French fries by the bay with the as-yet-imaginary “Julie,” it’s hard not to believe him. Even the cover art looks candid, as though he brought his guitar to his driver’s license photo shoot. He seems so unassuming, and yet it’s hard to tell when he’s kidding. “When people think of Sweden I think they’ve got the wrong idea,” he sings on “A Cold Swedish Winter,” and it’s easy to believe him, mostly because he himself is so immediately down-to-earth and yet ultimately hard to read.
All in all, this is a strong debut from a talented new songwriter. Lekman indicates in the liner notes that the songs on this album are “a collection of recordings, 2000-2004.” Lekman has said that he is rarely satisfied with his own recordings, and many of these songs have previously appeared in one form or another on Swedish EPs. This album brings a bit of finality to those recordings; fans can now look ahead to some completely new material from the singer, and hopefully an excellent sophomore effort. Lekman’s English can only get better, right?
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