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Serenade to Oblivion

It’s one of those nights. You’ve fucked up really bad and you’re fucked-up drunk. You’ve embarrassed yourself and everyone around you. Your friends hate you. People who have only the vaguest notion of who you are hate you. People who only know your face hate you.

It all started, as things often do, at a party—a party that looked so promising at first. Conversation was smart but not pretentious. People were cool without trying to be cool. There was good music, laughter, and liquor, and the air was filled with the pleasant stench of pheromones. It was, indeed, the sort of night when great things could actually happen.

Then you arrived. Sullen and silent, full of hate, be it self-hate or misanthropic hate—it doesn’t much matter, because you pretty much spoiled it for everyone. Again.

It’s not until many hours later that you finally do the right thing and try to find your drunken, blurry-eyed way out of there. But even this you can’t do right. And, when you get to the station you find that you’ve missed the last train home.

It’s at this point when the music begins. Bright and happy, it’s the sort of tune you might hear in some horrible Irish bar that’s swarming with oversexed frat boys, big-haired sorority sisters, and morbidly obese sports fanatics. The sort of slight, bouncy pop tune that makes a crowd like this raise their fists blindly in a drunken salute to their own drunkenness.

In other words, it sounds like the Corrs. You can almost see them: Andrea, Sharon, and Caroline Corr, and the beautiful, shallow smiles they wear on their perfect snow-white faces; plus brother Jim Corr, strumming a guitar with his I-think-I-just-shat-in-my-pants grin. It’s a clean, well-lit nightmare that’s going slowly out of control in your brain.

But then the vocal—a man’s quaking baritone—comes in, casting off these abject visions of the Corrs:

Oh no, god damn
I missed the last tram

I killed a party again

God damn, god damn.

I wanna sleep in my bed

I wanna clean up my head

Don’t wanna look this dead

Don’t wanna feel this dread

Yeah. It’s a great moment in rock and roll—and a great moment in self-loathing. That moment in Jens Lekman’s “Black Cab” when, after lifting you dangerously up with that cheerful forty-second intro, he drags you right back down into a more comfortable gutter with his plaintive “Oh no, god damn.”
Jens Lekman, from Gothenburg, Sweden, is only in his early twenties. Last year he was voted the fifteenth sexiest man in Sweden in the Swedish edition of Elle magazine. Handsome and incredibly talented, having mastered his pop/rock craft at such a young age, he’s got everything going for him. Yet, he writes and sings like someone who’s experienced about a hundred years of fuck-ups.

I killed a party again
I ruined it for my friends

“Well you’re so silent, Jens”
Well maybe I am, maybe I am

Now at the central station

No time for being patient

I feel like going home

But at the same time I don’t

“Black Cab” is Lekman at his most brilliant. It’s a song that should have been written by someone much older and uglier—like Bob Dylan. Indeed, it’s Lekman’s 21st century equivalent to Dylan’s classic “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Think about it. Each song, basically, is about someone being an asshole. In “Like a Rolling Stone,” it’s the unnamed person Dylan addresses throughout the entire song—a person who could easily kill a party in seconds—a person who was once on top of the world, who would dress in the best clothes and nonchalantly throw spare change at bums, but is now facing rough times and a perhaps even rougher future.

In “Black Cab,” Lekman plays the asshole himself, the guy who kills the party, yet again. We don’t know exactly how far he’s fallen, but like the asshole in Dylan’s song, Lekman faces an uncertain future—at the hands of a black cab:

And I’ve heard all those stories
’Bout the black cabs and the way they drive

But if you take a ride with them

You may not come back alive

They might be psycho killers

But tonight I really don’t care

So I say turn up the music

Take me home or take me anywhere

Following each verse is a simple chorus where Lekman sings “black cab” over and over as if he’s hailing one, begging for one to appear from out of the mist: “Black cab, black cab, black cab, black.” It’s a mantra, almost. Or a serenade to the black cab and what it may represent. Thus, it’s a serenade to oblivion. A serenade to the biggest asshole there is.

Until the bridge, Lekman is content with keeping the song more on the droll and whimsical side. But with the bridge he turns it completely around and suddenly the song is tortured. As he sings these words, you find that you’re actually moved by what’s happening:

You don’t know anything
So don’t ask me questions

You don’t know anything

So please don’t ask me any questions

You don’t know anything
So don’t ask me questions

Just turn the music up

And keep your mouth shut

Whether it’s bravery or the ultimate in foolhardiness, Lekman seems to be bold enough to cop an attitude with the driver of the black cab. (This is, after all, someone who may very well be more inclined to drive Lekman into the woods and strangle him than take him home.) But we don’t know for sure, because what he sings here could also be a flashback to his sullen demeanor at the party he just killed.

As with Dylan’s song, it’s not quite clear what exactly is going on—it is, as with Dylan’s song, open to “interpretation.” What is clear is that after a final chorus, the song goes on for another minute without any more vocals, and closes with the sound of church bells. The bells could mean that it’s Sunday morning and Lekman has made it through to the next day, whether he got home or spent the night out on the street. Or the bells could be mourning his death (the death of Lekman’s persona in the song, that is). Whatever the case, something has happened. And that something stays with you long after the song is over.

Last year “Like a Rolling Stone” made it to the top of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the five hundred greatest rock and roll songs of all time. “Black Cab,” though, may be an even better song than “Like a Rolling Stone.” Because while “Like a Rolling Stone” is a straight verse–chorus–verse–chorus song, “Black Cab” throws that bridge into the verse–chorus exchange. And the bridge Lekman throws in is one of the greatest bridges ever in any pop song.

Certainly, his work is a lot more intimate than Dylan’s—that’s Lekman’s great talent. Not only does he make you understand the absurdity and humor of the situations he presents, he also makes that absurdity and humor seem utterly human and moving. While Dylan—who is, along with Stephen Merritt, Morrissey, and Neil “Divine Comedy” Hannon, the songwriter Lekman is most often compared to—always keeps his subjects at a certain distance, Lekman dares to get close. Embarrassingly close. Yet he makes it work.

“Black Cab,” in fact, is the sort of tune Bob Dylan could have progressed to after his great 2001 CD, Love and Theft. But instead of moving things further along, he used his spare time to ogle Victoria’s Secret models in a commercial, which killed the party for some of his fans. But there are a lot of parties to kill. And a lot of people who need a better reason to hate Bob Dylan.

Maybe, like Jens Lekman, he’ll write a song about it.

José Padua’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in many publications.


José Padua

José Padua's fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in many publications. He is co-author of the blog Shenandoah Breakdown.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2005

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