Over the past six or seven years, Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman has gathered around him a group of fans firmly placed on the devoted end of the spectrum; as Ali G put it in his introduction of David Beckham, all the guys want to be him, all the girls want to be with him. Taking the stage unceremoniously, he introduces himself (“I am Jens Lekman, and this is my Swedish Australian band”) and immediately silences the expectant crowd by launching into an a cappella tune. The man oozes charm, while his band members, who wear matching gold keys on chains around their necks, add to the amiable allure.
This kind of affectation, however, borders on twee. To my friends who have never heard of the artist prior to attending this show, his music sounds “trite” and “full of familiar elements.” (This in’t a criticism of the show as a whole—it’s difficult not to have a great time at a Jens Lekman gig—just an observation on the music.) But what the insiders know that the casual listener often misses is that Lekman’s lyrics are spot-on: that perfect mix of wit, acerbic observation, and frank melancholia that the guys can identify with and the girls find utterly romantic.
8 Mar 2008: Manning Bar Sydney, AUS
In between songs, Jens spins unlikely stories in his ESL lilt that telegraph their own ridiculousness, yet turn out to be quite charming: “I was in Istanbul a few weeks ago…,” he begins, proceeding to tell us about a guy who asked him to play a certain song but remembered nothing but two notes: “doo doo.”
If anything, Lekman’s latest album (his first real full-length), Night Falls Over Kortedala, is his most unashamedly familiar record to date. Recycling one song (“The Opposite of Hallelujah”) that’s been floating around for years, and playing up the glissandi in the strings, the album feels more referential and less deep than his often obtuse, randomly-sampled earlier work. Nevertheless, after almost a year of touring on it, the new material has achieved a slick professionalism. The transition into “Your Arms Around Me”, for example, from an abbreviated version of “It Was a Strange Time in My Life” is well rehearsed and smoothly pulled off. However, I can’t help but prefer the song in its original incarnation from the Australian tour of last year, in which there was no mention of a kangaroo’s pouch but just “bright stars” and “the local ER.”
During the next break, he begins, “I was in St. Petersburg a few weeks ago…”
At Manning, Lekman’s band seems as familiar as his songs. The bouncy elfin guitarist, who never stops smiling, and the efficient drummer are both women who have previously performed on Lekman’s 2006 American tour. (In New York they’d been dressed all in white, a kind of schmaltzy-angelic backup for Lekman’s heavenly voice.)
“I was in Florence a few weeks ago,” begins Lekman’s next story. After he had complimented the city on its beauty, he explains, a couple of guys came up to him offended and said, no, “Florence is a fucking shithole.” So, just to appease us, he goes on. “So I’m just gonna say—fuck Sydney. I’ve had it up to here with your Opera Houses.” He pauses expertly for the laughter. “I’ve had it up to here with your fancy beaches. I’ve had it up to here with your Rod Stewart cover bands. I’m gonna play another song, but it’s not for you.”
The song, “New Directions”, which Lekman also played at his recent solo show, is even better with the full band backing. It appropriates the chord progression from Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” but adds an entirely new melody (“I don’t know who my friends are anymore”) and tells, in characteristic style, about using (and failing to use) Google Maps to get out of Kortedala.
“A Postcard to Nina”, one of the best songs off Night Falls Over Kortedala, has been a live staple for the past three years, varying only in small details: the inclusion of a Ryanair flight, or naming the German bus station in Berlin where he arrived 20 hours later. But it’s a little unfair to fault a performer for doing the same thing over and over, especially when he plays with such vigor that he breaks one of his guitar strings.
The crowd is equally energetic, and you can’t keep the kids at Manning from clapping along to “You Are the Light”. They absolutely love “And I Remember Every Kiss”, and a solo rendition of the gorgeous “Shirin” has even the chattering edges rapt. Apart from a slight iPod mishap at the beginning of “A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill”, the concert floats by so quickly that, seemingly as soon as it has begun, Lekman is standing there alone again playing the fragile and beautiful “A Little Lost”, his song from the Four Songs by Arthur Russell tribute EP released last year.
During the encore, Lekman introduces “Julie” with the words, “This is another song about a girl.” Asking himself why he writes so many songs about girls, he says, “It’s because I like girls.” Don’t we all, Jens; but not all of us can express it in so charming a way.