One of the loveliest albums of 2019 has received too little attention. Correspondence, released in mid-April, takes a deceptively simple idea and executes it with grace and generosity.
In 2018 the Swedish singer-songwriters Jens Lekman and Annika Norlin exchanged monthly missives in the form of songs. The interchange begins with Lekman living in a small town inside the Arctic circle, reflecting on the new year and wondering how one goes about making friends.
Norlin’s response finds her musing on why she dislikes showering in public change areas at the swimming pool. As the year progresses Lekman splits from his girlfriend and battles eczema, Norlin is angry about the climate crisis and wishing she was a hibernating bear.
There is a long tradition of epistolary poetry, but it is not a conceit commonly used in popular music.
There is a pervasive sense of affectionate attentiveness. They demonstrate that they care through the quality of their listening, ensuring neither artist is shouting into a void. This thoughtfulness, this deep humanity, is profoundly affecting.
There is a long tradition of epistolary poetry, but it is not a conceit commonly used in popular music. There are glittering exceptions – for example, Eminem’s ‘Stan’, ‘Anchorage’ by Michelle Shocked, ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ by Tom Waits, and ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ by Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Leonard Cohen’s sign-off at the end of ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, “Sincerely, L. Cohen” was quoted by Lekman when he ended ‘A Postcard to Nina’ by singing/signing “Yours truly, Jens Lekman”. The latter song was released in 2007; perhaps Lekman’s excellent idea of sonic correspondence has been percolating for a long time. In Norlin he finds an equally wry, equally candid co-respondent.
There is also a minor tradition of ‘answer songs’ in popular music – for example, Jayne Mansfield’s ‘That Makes It’ imaginatively construed the other end of the phone call in The Big Bopper’s ‘Chantilly Lace’, and ‘Oh Neil!’ was the young Carole King’s response to Neil Sedaka’s ‘Oh Carol!’ The closest cousin to the back and forth Lekman/Norlin exercise might beby Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet, but the songs on that album were written by Costello or collaboratively over a compressed period of time, making them epistolary in form but not function.
Historically, the evolution of letter writing occurred alongside technological and cultural change. Cheaper paper, the use of cursive script, broader courier and then mail networks, and mass education all influenced the prevalence and intent of correspondence. Lekman and Norlin are using the technological innovations of their day – cheap home recording; streaming of audio online – to share their letter songs with each other and a potential global audience.
For Correspondence the stipulation was that each track would have one instrument only, which is typically a plucked acoustic guitar.
Lekman has imposed other frameworks on his craft in the past. In 2015 he released a new song every week for the year, calling them postcards, numbered one to fifty-two. He has also encouraged fans to send him stories that he converts into song form. For Correspondence the stipulation was that each track would have one instrument only, which is typically a plucked acoustic guitar. Six of the tracks had strings added prior to the album’s release. They are suggestive rather than syrupy, never overwhelming the simplicity or distracting attention from the songs themselves. The plangent cello that underscores Lekman’s emotion in ‘Cosmetics Store’ rends the heart.
These dozen songs contemplate ways in which ordinary moments can gain significance, the difficulty of living as an adult and our awkward quest for grace. The lyrics are quirky but not elliptical. After all, these are people striving to communicate. Norlin writes of an election night when the result remains unclear: ‘It’s quiet, but feels like a bomb with a really long fuse’. Lekman ponders incels, Revenge of the Nerds, Ursula Le Guin, cloning, all sorts of things.
The temporal disruption of letter exchange by conventional mail or via well-crafted songs is very different to that which inheres to texting or skype. The time frame of long-form correspondence encourages musing, brooding, rethinking.
Perhaps when you were a certain age you wrote long letters to trusted or beloved people that contained everything you thought, saw, feared, loved, dreaded, read, overheard. I know a lot of people who did, at that age when the will to be understood is so strong, but I don’t know many who write those letters now. Perhaps it is a lack of time, or choosing to connect via instantaneous forms of technology. Perhaps also it is a reluctance, more rigid in adulthood, to be so vulnerable and bold in the sharing of self.
Which is why this album seems so special. Those beguiled by this separate-but-together exercise might hope that Norlin and Lekman extend their correspondence for another ten or twenty years – and let us listen in.