An Argument with Myself EP
(Secretly Canadian; 2011)
By Maura McAndrew | 23 September 2011
It’s curious that Jens Lekman went to the trouble to release An Argument with Myself—a five-song EP that wears its slightness on its sleeve—at all. Perhaps he was worried that after his long-ish absence following Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007) many would forget his face in the ensuing Scandinavian indie rock stampede? This is defiantly not a return, anyway, so much as it is a preview of what’s really to come; which turns out to be more of what we’ve already grown to love about Lekman. An Argument with Myself consists of one truly great song, one very good song, and three plainly flimsy, each of the latter situated well enough within Lekman’s comfort zone to not detract from the EP’s best spots.
However insubstantial, An Argument with Myself does serve as a reminder of Lekman’s considerable gifts as a lyricist. At his best he weaves stories with pitch-perfect detail, winding his way through places and connecting seemingly unrelated themes with ease and dexterity. After all, he’s always been fond of writing songs about the quirks of particular cities and neighborhoods, and if An Argument with Myself has an overarching theme, it’s one of places: those with which we’re deeply familiar, those in which we don’t quite belong, and those about which we fantasize, knowing little of their realities. Catchy opening (title) track kicks greets the listener mise-en-scène in Melbourne, Australia, where Lekman finds himself tangled up in a tourist hub, looking for a taxi among the drunk and shameless. “An Argument with Myself” coasts along on the interplay between a cheerfully plucked guitar and Lekman’s butter-smooth croon, and oscillates easily between fast and slow, spoken and sung. Here Lekman packs a lot into lines like “Crossing the street and crossing galaxies of taxis / And backseats and drunk Swedes and half-Greeks”; he has no qualms about brutal specificity, calling out Bev and Mick’s backpacker hostel by name and comparing its large crowds of reggae-loving tourists to “a tidal wave of vomit.”
“A Promise” and “New Directions” stick to similar themes, though they’re less detail-oriented. With “A Promise,” Lekman hatches a vague plan to take a sick friend to Santiago, Chile, and “New Directions” rattles off driving routes. While “A Promise” is a classic, lazy Lekman track, “New Directions” is something of a mess—an adult contemporary mash-up of horns, twee lady singers, flute, and assorted disparate elements that never quite seem to fit. “Directions” is Lekman as his most amped-up and frivolous; it makes what follows, the slow-burning “So This Guy at My Office,” sound even flatter and wispier by comparison.
But the missteps on An Argument with Myself are redeemed by “Waiting for Kirsten,” a delightfully twisty ballad about Lekman and a friend hanging around Kirsten Dunst’s hotel in Gothenburg, Sweden after she mentioned Lekman in an interview. What starts and ends as the passive pursuit of a Hollywood starlet veers off midway into ruminations on the changing nature of Gothenburg, Lekman’s home city. “In Gothenburg we don’t have VIP lines,” he explains in the refrain, but seems to lament how that, among other things, may not stay the same: “‘Cause times are changing, Kirsten / Göta Älv is slowly reversing / They turned a youth-center into a casino / They drew a swastika in your cappuccino.” This quick turn of phrase manages to speak volumes about economic and political change through just the shallowest of observations, though “Waiting for Kirsten” does delve into the more overtly political (“And the VIP lines are not to the clubs / But to healthcare, apartments, and jobs”) before returning to the story that began it. Now Lekman and friend, many beers in, scrawl a message to their beloved Kirsten, only to be rebuffed by the hotel staff. The song’s final lines are expository, yet tinged with resignation: “…the receptionist said I was drunk / And asked me to leave.”
Like Lekman’s best, “Waiting for Kirsten” seamlessly transforms one inconsequential, stagnant night into a meditation on a changing city. And that’s how An Argument with Myself seems like more of an attempt at an encapsulation of Lekman’s talent—to use the smallest things as gateways into work more ponderous but still relatable, achingly pretty but still occasionally biting, adventurous but familiar—than a showcase of new directions. Granted, this talent is rarely fully realized on An Argument with Myself. But any time spent in Lekman’s company is usually worth the visit.