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Jens Lekman’s latest is unabashedly peppy

| Monday, March 27, 2017

Jens Lekmans fixed pixels_WEBLauren Hebig | The Observer

While walking around campus with my old music player in hand, I pressed play on Jens Lekman’s latest record, “Life Will See You Now,” unsure of what to expect from its primitivistic, jocose cover art. The first track, “To Know Your Mission,” came on: a stereotypically theatrical piano ballad, confident and catchy like the opening scene of a musical. I tend to overlook lyricism unless I pay close attention, but Lekman’s voice is effortlessly captivating. The track’s novelty value — it recounts the tale of an enchanting Mormon protagonist — kept me engaged.

But then, something special happens: A kick drum comes in by the second stanza as Lekman sings about Princess Diana’s death, broadcasted over public radio. “Another saint is lost; Lady Di’s returned to stardust,” he sings with unsettling equanimity and confidence, then returns to the track’s protagonist: “He listens to the tragic news, followed by the top-10 tunes.”

A percussive breakdown, and the song bursts into a fit of cathartic wonder.

Even as an avid consumer of music, this was a rare moment: an exhilarating five minutes of genuine flawlessness. “To Know Your Mission” is one of the best singer-songwriter tracks I have heard in my life.

Granted, I don’t usually listen to so-called “singer-songwriter” musicians. Yet, there is something indisputably joyful about the track’s house-inspired vamp and the starry-eyed verses that follow. Striking a graceful balance between uplifting strings, piano that bursts with personality, a bouncy bass guitar and Lekman’s own witty lyricism, the track creates an uncanny sense of unity, as though the entire universe were humming in synchrony with you.

Sonically, this music is about as peppy as it gets. That said, the track’s lyricism provides substance and makes the track both memorable and relevant. Between moments of introspection, Lekman carols jubilantly about how it feels “To know your mission / To know what you’re here for / To know who you’re serving / To know what to do-o-o.” This is road-trip music for religious missionaries, yet genuine to the extent that it never comes across as preachy or arrogantly upright; Lekman gregariously shares his protagonist’s elation with you.

An entire article could be written about “To Know Your Mission,” but other songs on “Life Will See You Now” warrant similar praise. “Evening Prayer” centers on Lekman and his acquaintance Babak, the two of whom meet for a beer after doctors remove a tumor from Babak’s back. Lekman, with familiar good humor, sings about the tumor, which Babak has reproduced with the aid of a 3D printer. Like many tracks on Lekman’s latest record, “Evening Prayer” is witty, catchy and moving all at once.

At the heart of the record’s success is Lekman’s tragicomic juxtaposition of peppy pop-ballad arrangements with detailed storytelling that focuses on the trials of real people. On “Evening Prayer,” for instance, Lekman highlights Babak’s introspective liberation to the tune of funky guitars and saccharine keyboards, singing, “He puts the tumor on our table / Says: ‘So this is what caused all my fe-e-ears.’”

Even putting lyricism aside, “Life Will See You Now” is compositionally airtight. Lekman produced the record while first learning about the use of drum machines and other tools generally associated with electronic music. Their inclusion is plainly audible, but Lekman manipulates them with seasoned dexterity; they uniquely complement his sound without ever — as often happens to other artists — becoming an obstruction.

The record’s only downfall, paradoxically, is its length: While the front half is packed with highlight after highlight — almost too bright to bear — the second half is not only emotionally toned down, but sonically lacking in excitement as well. The drum machines become utilitarian devices, and there is less of Lekman’s curious pop experimentation. The last few tracks are great ballads, to be sure, but they are not particularly memorable outtakes of a genre that is already marred by chronic staleness.

Fortunately, Lekman enjoys enough raw talent to keep the record perennially afloat. The record’s first half is essential, yet the record’s entirety is still a worthwhile purchase for devoted fans of the artist and the genre.

Artist: Jens Lekman

Album: “Life Will See You Now”

Label: Secretly Canadian

Favorite Track: “To Know Your Mission,” “Hotwire The Ferris Wheel”

If you like: Jim O’Rourke, “The Book of Mormon,” Mariah Carey

Shamrocks: 4/5

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