Indie folk/Chamber pop
Jens Lekman & Annika Norlin
The rule is simple: "One letter a month, in the shape of a song. Six songs each, twelve in total. Only one instrument could be used for each letter."
Last year (2018), Swedish songsmiths Jens Lekman and Annika Norlin embarked on the monthly project to get in touch with each other more often - and the results are low-key and honest, without regard to any sort of marketing algorithm or game plan.
As the press release sums up, it's "an epistolary novel in the form of 12 folksongs", with strings added. A narrative unfurling leisurely over a year - now, in a touch-screen age of swift texting and easy likes, this feels anachronistic and hence should be cherished.
Savour the turns and twists in the conversation between kindred spirits, riffing off each other and touching on topical issues such as climate change, cultural entropy and gender roles.
Lekman's aww-shucks humility comes to the fore. Those of you who have caught him in a couple of gigs here can attest to his lack of airs. He wants to come closer, reach out, move among the audience as an equal.
The cycle begins with Who Really Needs Who, a song about the difficulty of making and maintaining friends. "You make friends when you were young," he observes, strumming his guitar. "What were those friendships based on/And what made them so strong?"
He gives a shout-out to his first friend, Francisco, who "had post-traumatic memories", and a refugee called Nazir who has become a pal. He recalls the first time he and Norlin met a decade ago in New York when he answers her call for someone to help her set up a show. "I was feeling so alone back then/Vulnerable and heartbroken," he reveals.
Norlin tries to cheer him up with Showering In Public, sharing her hang-up about showering at gyms, because she doesn't "want anyone listening to my albums/While telling their mums what my ass looks like". It's a remarkably intimate detail, about the need to "use a towel strategically" and "shower one body part at a time", and her fear about perverts. Delivered straight, the tragicomedy is a hoot.
In comparison, Lekman is rueful. In Forever Young, Forever Beautiful, he waxes lyrical about an old woman who climbed the Everest so that she could visit the frozen body of her husband who perished in a failed expedition decades earlier. In the moving Cosmetic Store, he confesses that his façade gives way in the most unexpected way, when a store clerk washes his hand gently.
"I felt a tear running down my cheek… I hid it quick," he sings. "A hand that forgot/What it's like to be held/What it's like to be grazed."
Gulp. Just when you think it risks getting downbeat, they switch things up. He fantasizes about having multiple clones of himself so they can achieve so much more (Not Because It's Easy, But Because It's Hard) and she asks him to send one over (Joining A Cult).
Throughout, one thing shines despite the distance of time and space: the good humanity of two friends who bother to take time to check on each other, and find common ground. Bless them.