Jens Lekman revises his old songs

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Earlier this year, Swedish musician Jens Lekman reissued two beloved albums from his catalog: 2005’s ‘Oh You’re So Silent Jens’ and 2007’s ‘Night Falls Over Kortedala’. repackaging wouldn’t be remarkable – releasing a bloated reissue of a past album, often on an anniversary, has become almost de rigueur in recent years – except that Lekman has redone some tracks from top to bottom, in left some alone, added archival material, gave the reissue new titles (“The Cherry Trees Are Still in Blossom” and “The Linden Trees Are Still in Blossom”), and officially discontinued the original version of “Night Falls Over Kortedala,” removing it from streaming services and halting all physical sales. Lekman’s label, Secretly Canadian, hosted something of a wake-up call for “Night Falls Over Kortedala,” releasing the record for one last night of listening and inviting fans to “join us as we put this album to rest by sharing your condolences on the YouTube chat”. “As the songs played, a video played with the album cover, a drawing of a little white dove and the words ‘In Memoriam’.

Lekman’s career has been built around weaving hazy bits of looping sound, often ripped from obscure dollar vinyl records, with delightfully polished melodies. His voice is smooth, soft and melodious, and just like Scott Walker or Jacques Brel, he can make the roughest or most devastating lyrical sound delicate, even seductive. Lekman was pressured to re-release his early work partly because the original versions featured unapproved samples – Lekman never expected to find a significant audience, and so early in his career he was cavalier about acquiring appropriate legal licenses. (“Night Falls Over Kortedala” went to No. 1 in Sweden, and was subsequently named one of the greatest albums of the 21st century – so far – in a critics poll organized by the Guardian; upon its release, Pitchfork called the record “globe-conquering”.) The re-recordings were intended, in part, to correct copyright issues. Still, Lekman continues to find value in the idea of ​​reusing lost sound: “I always go to flea markets and buy old vinyl singles, the cheapest ones, the ones that are about to sell. be thrown away,” Lekman recently told me. “I still see it as a kind of humanitarian mission, to save these collected thoughts.”

Over time, the reissue project began to take on an existential component. Lekman wondered if the music shouldn’t be deliberately given space to evolve. For Lekman, re-recording his early songs became a way to reanimate his music and, in a way, set it free. “I never wanted my music to be stuck in a museum somewhere,” Lekman said. “I wanted the music to be alive. I wanted him to be allowed to change. To me, it felt like music on streaming services was like butterflies dipped in chloroform. The songs seemed a bit dead somehow.

In “The Art of Revision”, a short but clarifying book on the practice of polishing fiction, writer Peter Ho Davies describes revision as “the sum of what changes and what remains the same, and the reaction alchemy between them”. For artists, this fission can be transformational, even electrifying. At first, Lekman simply found the project onerous. “It was quite appalling. I really wanted to move on,” he said. Eventually, Lekman, who is forty-one, discovered that being brought into conversation with his younger self could be uplifting in unpredictable ways. Rather than returning to the central questions of his early music – who and how to love – and feeling a sense of heightened wisdom, he found he was still completely confused. “When I was twenty-one, I used to sing a lot about love, but I really had no experience of love. I had barely kissed anyone at that time,” he told me. he said. “I was imagining what a person in love looks like. How does it feel to be in love? Is that being jealous? How does it feel to have your heart broken?

On “Maple Leaves”, a 2002 song, which was featured on “Oh You’re So Silent Jens”, Lekman sings that he feels confused and hopeless. The song is about mishearing something a lover said (“make believe” like “maple leaves”), and languishing in a kind of dazed sopor. “When I re-recorded it, I was thinking a lot about the re-recording of ‘Both Sides, Now’ by Joni Mitchell when she was in her 50s. The original version is a nice little folk song, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as the re-recording. I think of the line ‘It’s the illusions of love I remember / I really don’t know love’ . . at all.’ ‘Maple Leaves’ ends with ‘I never understood at all.’ When I was twenty-one, I thought that at forty-one I would know what love was, but we never know exactly why love starts, or why it dies, or what love is. ‘other person loves us – and they don’t know it either,” Lekman said. “Love is always a misunderstood word.”

The original version of “Maple Leaves” is rhythmic, thrilling, almost casual. The new one, which I gradually preferred, is resolutely melancholy, opening on a section of lugubrious strings. Lekman’s voice is fuller, thicker, more certain. This time, he is not trying to turn his sadness into something else. Twenty years have given him the presence of mind to simply accept a broken heart for what it is.

Since the invention of the phonograph in the 1870s, recordings – still, static, unchanging – have gradually supplanted live performance as the means for most listeners to approach music. Although our relationship to a work of art may change over time, recordings are rigid – we change, but the song remains the same. The idea of ​​revisiting and revising an old work isn’t new, exactly (Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell have both officially released re-recordings of old tracks), and many artists play new versions of old songs during of a tour. (Bob Dylan, in particular, is both praised and mocked for aggressively reinterpreting his own songbook on stage.) But the importance of streaming means it’s now possible for an artist to revise or put efficiently – surreptitiously, even – an entire recorded discography. . When music lives online, in the ether, it can be transformed at will and without notice.

Over the past few years, Taylor Swift and Kanye West (now recording as Ye) — two of the world’s most ubiquitous pop stars — have deliberately or inadvertently challenged the idea of ​​permanent, inflexible recordings. For Swift, the decision to re-record her previous releases was likely born out of revenge and mercenary instincts: In 2019, the label that owned the masters for her first six albums was sold to music director Scooter Braun, with whom Swift clashed violently. in the old days. She has since re-recorded the “Fearless” and “Red” albums, adding the pointed appendix “(Taylor’s Version)” to new releases. For West, the overhaul feels like an extension of his overwhelming ambition. In 2016, just hours after the release of his seventh LP, “The Life of Pablo”, West announced on Twitter, “Ima fix wolves”, a reference to a seemingly unfinished track. Ultimately, he uploaded new or modified versions of over a dozen songs after release. In another tweet, West called the album a “shifting creative expression of living breath,” adding the hashtag #contemporaryart. Last year, West announced the release of the Stem Player, a beige, cookie-shaped device designed to allow users to disassemble a track into constituent “stems,” the individual musical components that make up the song. His eleventh album, “Donda 2,” was released exclusively on Stem Player, and, in an Instagram post about the decision, West wrote, “It’s time to free music from this oppressive system.” (Ultimately, the Stem Player received lackluster reviews.)

As music becomes more and more fleeting, at least from a consumer perspective, it seems likely that we’ll see more and more artists reimagining the album as something less locked down and inflexible. Of course, I can understand why some people might find this idea horrifying. It’s easy to become anchored in the quicksand of your own mind, caught in a perpetual state of indecisiveness, questioning everything, fidgeting, panicking, cooking and cooking but never sitting down to eat. Perhaps there is a point in the creative process when a work comes very close to being “right” – when an artist’s intentions for a piece and a viewer’s experience briefly coincide – and tinkering after this point only pushes the work out of alignment. Yet I still tend to view editing as a generative and undervalued practice, one that has been blocked and tainted by the damaging but enduring idea of ​​art as a product rather than a process. Students locked into craft-oriented creative writing programs are repeatedly told that “writing is rewriting,” the idea being that the real work – the work – is in the meticulous sharpening, refinement, restlessness, separation, making it beautiful. It is also, for many artists, where the fun lies; we chisel and scrape until a face emerges from the stone. Perhaps, as the poet Paul Valéry wrote, a work of art is never truly finished, simply abandoned. Perhaps it is important for an artist to let the work change as the artist changes, to progress, to update itself, to duplicate itself. It’s a way of reclaiming music as something more complex, dynamic and human.

Last spring, in support of the reissues, Lekman toured the United States and performed with local youth orchestras. “I wanted these things to happen at the same time, because I feel like they’re connected in some way,” he told me. “I want the songs to be in motion, I want them to be left to change, I want to see what these young musicians do with them.” While on tour, Lekman sold a sheet music book titled “Jens Lekman Miniature Art: 9 Songs for Guitar, Vocals, and Sometimes Strings”, hoping to open the work up to more revision and interpretation. . “When I was writing the foreword to the book, I put a few lines about how, if you’ve never heard these songs before, don’t bother listening to them before you play them,” said- he explained. “Just pick up an instrument and see what comes out when you do them the way you do them.”

I remembered part of a line from “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon: “The nature of things is resistance to change, while the nature of process is resistance to stasis, but things and the process are one.” As disconcerting as it is to think that albums are fickle, there’s also something powerful about the idea that music – like the natural world, like our bodies, like our lives – is always in motion. ♦

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