Night Falls Over Kortedala
hatever else you want to say about Jens Lekman's second North American LP, at least he's finally gotten to live out his wildest Shangri-Las dreams. “I Remember Every Kiss” starts Night Falls Over Kortedala with the swelling strings and rolling tympani that practically demands motorcycle crashes. But instead we have our baritone Swede proclaiming “But I would never kiss anyone / Who doesn't burn me like the sun” as the orchestra crashes into grandeur. It's a thrilling moment, and like Belle and Sebastian circa “This Is Just a Modern Rock Song” he amplifies its impact by marrying his personal romantic apocalypse with broader social issues: “Things get more complicated when you're older / Before you know it you are somebody's soldier / You get a gun and name it after a girlfriend.” (The latter line is much more effective sung with Lekman's newly sober delivery than you might think)
But he's not necessarily casting an eye America's way; Kortedala, the Gothenburg neighborhood Lekman lives in is apparently quite the hell hole by Swedish standards. Lekman has written about the atmosphere of where he lives, “the knock on my window at 4 am this summer followed by a whispered 'when he opens you hit him in the head,' the neighbor I constantly find passed out in the staircase, the flicker of a million TV screens against the living room walls, the smoke from a million chain smoking moms, the fact that the guy who lived in my apartment before me lay dead in the bathtub for three months before they found him” and the songs here are both depictions of the kind of fraught interior life that suggests, as well as Lekman's attempt to distance himself from his surroundings. It's little surprise then that Night Falls Over Kortedala is more paranoid and insular than Lekman has been to date—and also that he plans to move.
Second track “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar” confirms the suspicion raised by “I Remember Every Kiss” that Lekman has abandoned at least temporarily the lo-fi, folky charms of much of When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog in order to make widescreen pop, but it's also about Jens telling himself to stop living only in nostalgia, to get the hell out of his own head every so often. Apparently our soundtrack for that will be wall-to-wall lush, string-based pop that seems to come equally from the Ronettes and the Walker Brothers. This is a mode he's worked in before, and he's quite good at it. Single “The Opposite of Hallelujah” probably cuts the closest to what we're used to from Lekman, and while it's a wonderful song it's actually not quite as gleamingly pretty as much of Night Falls Over Kortedala. “Your Arms Around Me” is the most successful example of the style he's moved to: it’s a typically bizarre tale of cutting your finger because your girlfriend startles you with a hug that succeeds through the sheer loveliness of the string-rich backing.
Aside from that five-minute swoon, however, the middle section of this album doesn't fare as well. The one-two punch of “I'm Leaving You Because I Don't Love You” and “If I Could Cry (It Would Feel Like This)” are just as florid as the titles threaten, and they suggest that Lekman doesn't want to try and make the transition to full-on crooner just yet. For fans there's certainly things to appreciate about both, but it's also impossible to avoid noticing their overripe, overly plush feel. “Shirin” and “Into Eternity” meanwhile marks the first time Lekman has seemed perfunctory, songs that sound exactly like you'd expect a Jens Lekman track to sound (right down to the former's tale of Lekman's affection for his Iraq War-scarred hairdresser).
“It Was a Strange Time in My Life” rights things sonically but between the way Lekman halts the track in the middle for a quasi-choral interlude about what shy people are really like and the fact it's five minutes long without much of a chorus, it's again evidence that for better or worse Lekman is in this singer-songwriter thing for the long term. Which means he's going to produce gems like “I Remember Every Kiss” and “Your Arms Around Me” on a regular basis, but also that unlike his debut (compiled from years worth of material) he's going to do so via albums which are going to be just as up-and-down in their efforts to polish his sound and to figure himself out as any of his peers.
Night Falls Over Kortedala smartly saves the ingratiating, I'm-dancing-as-fast-as-I-can “Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo” for last, and to be clear this is a pretty great album, filler and all. It's just a bit hard to take after the seemingly effortless perfection of When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog a few years ago. It's not a case of sophomore slump so much as it is the difference between cherry picking your own work and actually making an album. He's still got more melodic chops and more interesting lyrics than many more lauded singers, and his daffily romantic, doe-eyed worldview is still one that's worth checking out. Just be prepared to use the skip button this time, or at least to let some of the songs underwhelm you.