Swedish troubadour Jens Lekman is a literalist, the kind of guy who clarifies what he meant when, say, he expressed interest in being your dog (he just wanted to lick your face), or rattles off a list of “miserable chords” (F minor 11; E flat major 7) when describing how he couldn’t write songs after a breakup. But Lekman’s also a romantic, and his catalogue spills over with love songs.
Those contradictory qualities make for interesting results—especially so on I Know What Love Isn’t, a collection of songs that poke around in the calcifying remains of a failed romance. In the title track, he fantasizes about getting married for a green card: “A relationship [that] doesn’t lie about its intentions and shit.” The arrangements are almost new agey in their queasy intimacy, more airport lounge than big band. “Erica America,” with its soft-rock sax and Jesse Cook guitar, marries a Las Vegas–set lament to a super-cheesy soundtrack that’s as intoxicating and hollow as a whirlwind summer fling.
Lekman’s never been coy about his spiritual and stylistic antecedents: In the past, he’s name-checked Burt Bacharach and Hal David; here, he sighs about Sinatra (who “had his shit figured out, I presume”). But Lekman is the opposite of ba-da-bing; he’s an inside-out Cole Porter, elevating the mundane into something sublime rather than playfully poeticizing universal themes. At times, he’s so fixated on specifics that you want to break up with him yourself. But then he explains, for instance, why “The End of the World is Bigger Than Love,” and you can’t help but love a guy who’s grounded enough to use logic to talk himself out of his own heartbreak.
Playlist picks “The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love,” “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots,” “Become Someone Else’s”
Jens Lekman plays the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne St.) on Oct. 4.