It’s difficult to criticize Jens Lekman on grounds of awkwardness or insularity; he’s never exactly been circumspect about those traits, but Lekman’s new EP find him in an even more exaggeratedly stilted, self-amused state than ever. An Argument With Myself certainly lives up to its title, with Lekman allowing his smoothly crooned melodies to be tripped up by the tangled threads of his conflicting thoughts and blurted feelings. Whereas self-deprecation was once among his most endearing qualities, now Lekman comes off as debilitatingly insecure. More often than not, An Argument With Myself sounds like psychotherapy set to music. Either that or a tongue-in-cheek, extended tribute to and/or satire of mopey, fey cardigan-wearing-Caucasian-boy music. Whatever the intent, the effect is tiresome, confusing and highly disappointing (especially considering both the authentically moving sweet/sad balance sustained on 2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala), as is this EP’s less than 17-minute length.
Slight, even for such a short release, An Argument With Myself is less than the sum of its parts. Ignoring the lack of progress Lekman has made since 2007 helps to alleviate some of the disappointment; the central melody from “Your Arms Around Me” is no less winsome in recycled form, tacked on at the end of Argument’s title track; and the tender, sentimental strings from that Kortedala highlight still shimmers as prettily as they did four years ago, on the intro to “Waiting For Kirsten.” That the chord progression shifts here, doubling back instead of soaring upwards, says everything we need to know about An Argument With Myself.
Lekman isn’t repeating himself here; he’s retreating, deeper and deeper within his own cluttered mind, hiding out from the changing world, a world he once understood — just barely — and now finds utterly bewildering. “Times are changing,” he sings to an old friend on “Waiting For Kirsten,” eulogizing the lost Gothenburg of his youth, lamenting the freshly-dug shallows his hometown has become. There’s something perversely appealing about Lekman’s inability to deal with unwanted changes; giving a derivative mashup of British Invasion orchestration and Graceland verses, the title “New Directions” might be Lekman’s best, sliest joke on this record.
All joking aside, the sleepy, sub-Sweetback quiet storm dub of “This Guy On My Office” actually does qualify as something of a new direction for Lekman, even if it isn’t a resounding success. Hearing Lekman ramble about a Earl Grey-scented co-worker over flaccid reggae is enjoyable enough, but the song, ending as it does, with the singer losing track of his own thoughts before trailing off altogether, is too soft an ending to leave a lasting impression. Sadly, there aren’t many moments on An Argument With Myself that register strongly. If this EP is meant as a warm-up exercise — or an expulsion of inner turmoil — then it’s easy enough to excuse, but if Lekman is actually, actually content to recycle the same songs, to keep making both the jokes that only he finds funny or the emotional appeals that few, if any, care to hear, then so be it; Lekman has the right to be his own best audience. I, on the other hand, as a fan living in the world outside Lekman’s head, have the right to expect better from him.