When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog
he true measure of an artist’s ability is not how they handle good material. Instead, it’s how they deal with the stuff that would sink a far lesser talent. When Swede Jens Lekman begins his debut North American record with the lines “Did you take tram #7 to Heaven / Did you eat your banana from 7-11?” and the song is not a disaster, it’s a very promising sign.
In fact “Tram #7 To Heaven” is utterly beguiling; at first listen it catches you flatfooted when after a few minutes of gentle balladry (shoals of harp glistening just out of reach) his voice stretches up against the outer limits of the low fidelity, blurring at the edges and the harp finally swells into full view as he yells “I’m fixed” behind it, sounding like a neutered puppy. That last minute of swooping sound floors you, pins you with its brilliance. That such a relatively unassuming beginning should lead to such a startling and satisfying ending leaves you waiting for the next surprise.
It’s further testament to Lekman’s greatness that even though nothing here sounds quite like what you expect after “Tram #7 To Heaven” ends, there’s never a moment of disappointment. A steel drum loop and some trumpet wafts “Happy Birthday, Dear Friend Lisa” aloft and we’re off, running through the bright fields of Pop. “You Are The Light (By Which I Travel Into This And That)” is impossibly maximalist for such a simple thing (those trumpets again, bullying the track forward) and utterly sublime closer “A Higher Power” opens with a Spector-ish kick drum before dense, ebullient violins lift into the stratosphere, Jens telling the story of the atheist girl who made him believe in God. Much of the rest of the record is rounded out with some form of quiet, from the swingingly a cappella “Do You Remember The Riots?” to the sad-as-anything string and mandolin coda that closes “Psychogirl”. Sometimes it’s sheepishly mournful, as on the not-quite-resignation of the title track, sometimes floridly baffled like “If You Ever Need A Stranger (To Sing At Your Wedding)”, but these oases of calm don’t disrupt the album so much as center it around the flashier moments.
Vocally Lekman is pitched equidistant between Stephin Merritt, Jonathan Richman and Stevie Jackson from Belle & Sebastian, and that’s not a bad description of the music here (only not as chintzy, manic or ornate, respectively). It’s an occasionally gorgeous voice, as on “Do You Remember The Riots”, accompanied only by a female vocal and some finger snaps. But it’s his songwriting that excites more often; “The Cold Swedish Winter”, for example, goes something like this: Girl meets boy during snow storm, they go back to her house to get warm, she says she knows he doesn’t like her but asks him to deny it, Jens briefly notes Cliff Richards and Lou Reed’s ideas of Sweden (Cliff is wrong, Lou somewhat right), no matter how hard he tries to convince her that he actually wants to kiss her (and not just to get out of the storm) she keeps asking him to pretend he likes her. The track then ends with Lekman predicting that when the people of the future dig up Sweden to do some archeology they’ll find we had hearts of stone. This, plainly, shouldn’t work. But not only does it cohere; it boasts a gorgeous duet chorus and easily transcends the pathos of the story.
There’s a shaggy amiability to When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog, from the title track’s gentle correction of the Stooges’ chestnut and the slightly puzzled expression on Jens’ face on the cover to the way Lekman has exactly one brief burst of enthusiasm during “Happy Birthday, Dear Friend Lisa” (“Yes, I love you!”) that along with the deft performances elevates the material to even greater heights.
But, if there’s one caveat it’s the caption of the first page of the liner notes: “A collection of recordings 2000-2004”. This is the carefully selected cream of four years of work, and although that patience and unwillingness to let anything but the very best makes this one of the best records of the year, it’s not an easily repeatable feat. Probably the worst thing that could happen now is for Lekman to put out another album anytime soon; may he win the lottery and take four years off to bring us just as heady a collection of gorgeous songs next time. On the evidence of When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog, we should all be more than willing to wait.