Oh You're So Silent Jens
ost people live lives pitched somewhere between total naïvete and complete cynicism. Not Swedish troubadour (literally, a lyric poet who writes of love) Jens Lekman; he manages to exist in both at once. The man is one of the few human beings currently alive who could cover both “The Rainbow Connection” and “No Action” without descending into either self-parody or leaden irony. And he does so without appearing particularly conflicted; when you listen to him enough it just seems naturally that the perpetually single (in his songs) Lekman should write both puppyish songs of new love and bitterly reflective ones of old affections withered away.
His songwriting talent is formidable, but what was really bewitching about last year's When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog was the almost bizarrely high level of uniform quality. Pulled from five years of recordings, that record was worrisome for fans, as if there was ever a case for predicting the sophomore slump here it was. After years of writing and playing Lekman had carefully selected eleven songs that fit together perfectly—without that same flexibility next time, would we get something hasty and incomplete?
Thankfully we can all defer the question for a little longer, as Secretly Canadian has instead released a collection of the three EPs Lekman released in 2003 and 2004, with some compilation appearances and 7” tracks thrown in as bonuses. The result is in some ways immensely pleasing (at its best the quality here is easily the equal of the songs from the proper album), but at seventeen songs and a full hour in length Oh You're So Silent Jens suffers a bit, predictably, from too much of a good thing.
Outright missteps are few and far between, thankfully—“Pocketful Of Money” stands out with a horribly chosen and used Beat Happening sample that lets Calvin Johnson croak out the words “I'll come running with a heart on fire” ad nauseam, and we didn't really need two version of the excellent “Maple Leaves,” but mostly this is a sterling example of Lekman's talents. The Maple Leaves EP boasts both the touchingly solemn “Sky Phenomenon,” just Jens' voice and piano, and the immortal “Black Cab” which is possibly the best single track Lekman has yet penned. The liner notes reveal that its haunting familiarity is due to some cunning sampling (Belle & Sebastian's “Mary Jo,” now with completely different emotional context), but regardless of where the flute comes from this tale of wanting to go home (but at the same time, not wanting to go home) after a miserable party remains a torch song for inadvertent wallflowers everywhere, a “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” for people who don't even have a specific crush to start from.
The Rocky Dennis EP seems on the face of it a bit more jokey; the story goes that a mislabeled demo and an incurious record company employee meant that Lekman was known as “Rocky Dennis” (AKA the deformed kid from the movie Mask) in Sweden for a while. It's a testament to Lekman's songwriting skill that he wrings two excellent songs out of the story, one of Rocky singing to a blind girl and one of Jens singing to Rocky. The Julie EP has a remix of the title track (the other, superior version of which is found on When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog) that just takes up time, but also “A Sweet Summer Night On Hammer Hill,” one of the most ebullient songs you could ever hope to hear. It samples a raucous crowd from one of Lekman's own shows (you can hear them calling for “Black Cab” at the end) and between their joyous scatting, handclaps, and trumpet that make up the rest of the song, you've got the only song I can think of where starting with the lines “Oh, I still remember “Regulate” with Warren G / That would have been back in the sweet summer of 1993” is merely a bonus.
The collection finishes off with three perfectly chosen non-EP tracks, including the Arab Strap sampling, scrupulously polite “F-Word” and the better version of “Maple Leaves” and by the time it ends any fan will be deliriously happy that all of these great songs have been collected in one place. If you're already under Lekman's spell it's hard not to do anything but love this collection, and you could easily Playing God a collection from these songs that would equal or surpass When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog.
But that is ultimately the (slight) problem with Oh You're So Silent Jens, as great as this music is. When collecting loose songs one can either aim for completeness or perfection, and this goes for the former. If Lekman hadn't already given us perfection with his first album the completeness of this collection would be a more unambiguous positive; as it is, this is nearly as essential as Lekman's album but doesn't quite reach those heights, and the fact that it could with a little pruning rankles.