Jens Lekman – Maple Leaves EP

Jens Lekman
Maple Leaves EP

The reasons to dislike Sweeden’s 22-year-old Jens Lekman seem to be obvious and many. There’s the immediate cringe when one recalls past Sweede imports like Abba and Ace of Base. There’s his pretension-laden and mildly offensive nome de plume Rocky Dennis, borrowed from the name of a tragically disfigured teen, played with sentimental mastery by Eric Stoltz, in the 1985 Cher vehicle Mask. Then there’s the opportunistic promotional put-on by his record label, Bloomington, Indiana’s Secretly Canadian Records, which has released two EPs, The Rocky Dennis EP and Maple Leaves to promote his upcoming full-length debut.

But, then there’s the Maple Leaves EP, uneven and intermittently glorious, which quickly reveals a precocious studio talent who may be a bit misunderstood, perhaps most importantly, by himself. As the album starts, we get something of a Rocky Dennis-like masking of appearances. We first hear flute-filled drum and bass and low-voiced ambience; one wouldn’t be too surprised if a DJ Shadow record began this way. The track then surprisingly reveals tenderly melodic structure of strings. Soon, by way of a Phil Spectorish glockenspiel and backup vocals, coupled with Lekman’s own slow-molasses Morrissey impression, we’re overcome by a song has metamorphosed into a yearning portrayal a lovelorn lad who just can’t see the romantic forest for the leaves.

“She said we were just make believe,” Lekman writes, “I thought she said maple leaves.” The result on the title track is a song far more melodic and accomplished than the album’s two somber guy-and-piano dirges, “Sky Phenomenon” and “Someone to Share My Life With.” In fact, the title track could be one of the most immediately pleasing string arrangements since The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” It’s dense, textured pop for the Kafka and coffee set, with a stunningly beautiful breakbeat-and-bells bridge culminating in Lekman’s falsetto cry of “I never understood at all.” Well, young Jens, we understand exactly what you mean.

But, if we get the man behind the hype mask on the title track, we get obfuscation and evasion on much of the remaining album. Lekman tries hard to draw from all the right resources to support his uneven but consistently evocative voice. “Black Cab” twirls mandolin and jangling guitar over a Mark Kozelek-meets-Belle & Sebastian medium-tempo groove dedicated to late-night transit. “Someone to Share My Life With” features spare guitars strummed over delicate bells and smatterings of Leonard Cohen style deep-throated phrasings.

“Sky Phenomenon” steals a page and a half from The Magnetic Fields songbook, trying to hard to dole out sweet sentiment sodden with irony. Unfortunately, the outcome on “Sky” is more purple than penetrating. Wishing to join migrating flock of passing birds, Lekman whines, “But I wouldn’t be accepted / Because I can’t dance the funky chicken.” Such immature and unbalanced lyrical turns undercut Lekman’s naturally emotive vocal talents. When his writing derails, as on “Sky,” it’s because Lekman conjures incongruent reference points; there’s a reason why Nick Drake never used his mortician’s wail to utter faux-cute lines like “It’s like someone spilled a beer over the atmosphere.”

Throughout Maple Leaves, it becomes clear that Lekman’s talents lie in heart-rending crooning, not detached commentary. For all its potential, Lekman’s EP, which he produced and recorded himself, never quite lives up to the carefully crafted brilliance of its opening track. It’s as if Lekman, trying to be at once cute, soulful, ironic, and wearily lovesick, cuts his own talents off at the root. One hopes tracks like “Maple Leaves” lead Lekman away from stabs at embodying the entire indie cannon – everyone from Drake to Merritt to Malkmus. May his leaves fall not far from his own firmly planted potential.