Remember how everyone went crazy in 2001 for that Avalanches record Since I Left You? Critics, listeners, and Madonna loved the lush strings, whimsical samples, and good-time vibes of that band's debut. Well, Jens Lekman's new LP, Night Falls Over Kortedala, replicates that sound — with the added attraction of clever lyrics and gorgeous crooning. You'd think Lekman would be happy with his mélange of quirky sonic details, heartfelt singing, and thick-as-a-brick hooks, especially since he recorded most of Night Falls alone in his studio in Gothenburg, Sweden. But he's not exactly pleased.
"The record was born out of failure," he says via phone from Bloomington, Ind., where he's rehearsing at the home of his label, Secretly Canadian. "I wanted to make an exotic record, like Graceland. A traveling record."
Save for "Into Eternity," which includes Peruvian flute and a bossa nova rhythm, there is little exotica on Kortedala. Instead, the disc revolves around "the smell of 1952," as Lekman sings on "Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo." He seems to be hotwiring an AM radio dial from the days of Wolfman Jack. He applies old-timey sax and hand claps in the aforementioned track, barbershop harmonies on "Kanske Ar Jag Kar I Dig" and "A Letter to Nina," and soaring strings on just about everything.
Lekman partially arrived at this old-school sound via his forays into his local flea market. "I buy records every week at a church downtown," he says. "I love putting two sounds together that were never meant to meet." On Kortedala, which was named for his neighborhood, Lekman samples '70s experimental pop band Renaldo & the Loaf, easy lounge impresario Enoch Light, Zimbabwe Afrobeat act Patrick Mkwamba & the Four Brothers, and himself singing as a child. (Lekman was unable to clear several samples, so Steely Dan sideman Michael Leonhart rerecorded them for him.)
More than ever, Lekman also strove for big arrangements, albeit a bit subconsciously. "I don't really know how it got to sound like that," he says. "I think there are ghosts in my apartment [studio]." Certainly, there are ghosts in his lyrics, as Lekman uses past girlfriends and unrequited crushes for storytelling fodder. Not since the heyday of the Velvet Underground have so many tunes been about so many girls. Most notably, there's Shirin, an Iraqi-born hairstylist who sings along to Bryan Adams songs when cutting Lekman's locks; Nicole, with whom Lekman tries to be brutally honest during "I'm Leaving You Because I Don't Love You"; and Nina, a lesbian friend who uses Lekman as a beard. The latter track, "A Postcard to Nina," is bound to be featured on a gazillion mix CDs this year, as it's one of those epic story-songs that's romantic, funny, and tragic in equal turns. "I feel like I can't take credit for [the song], because I was just telling what happened, with rhymes," he says.
Lekman's modesty is part of his charm. How else do you get away with a song in which you tell someone you flat-out don't love her? In other hands, he'd come off like a big prick, but on Kortedala he sounds so heartfelt and cuddly that the girl in question probably gave him a little nookie for the road. It doesn't hurt that he sings in the kind of smooth '50s croon that probably scored Tony Bennett plenty of poodle skirt.
With Kortedala, Lekman may have hoped to explore the rhythms of the various continents, but he ended up with something better. By delving into the world of sound, he proved that isolation can be as far-reaching and emotionally open as airline travel. Take that, Paul Simon.