Beards, Blazers & Glasses or Jens Lekman, This Charming Man
Every time I write about Jens Lekman, I'm tempted to compare him to Morrissey, even though I know I shouldn't. After all, both songwriters specialize in witty and literate love-lorn laments sung in a smooth, mahogany baritone. And invariably, any time you can compare someone's voice to an article of fine office furniture, it's a good thing. Granted, Jens hasn't written anything nearly as good as The Queen is Dead but really, who has? Besides, Lekman has one thing on the notoriously chilly "Pope of Mope," namely an inherent charm and affability unmatched by few songwriters in recent memory.
You can sense Lekman's likability on his records. "A Postcard to Nina" finds him posing as his lesbian friend's boyfriend for her bigoted German father. " Yet rather than censure the old man's ignorance, Lekman takes the softer, kinder approach, wryly poking fun at the awkwardness of the meeting and the weird, kindly e-mails that Nina's father sends Jens in the aftermath. The hardest thing in the world is to be funny without being mean (perhaps one of these days I'll learn how), but in person, Lekman is the rare person who manages to be supremely nice without ever being dull. Forget the songs themselves, which are almost uniformly good, his between song banter is flat-out hilarious. With the timing and delivery of a crack stand-up, Lekman regaled the crowd with background stories that played like DVD commentary.
Before "Shirin," he explained the misery of his hometown of Gothenberg, Sweden and how the only thing worthwhile was his hair-cutter, Shirin. Before "A Postcard to Nina," he confessed how his cheapness caused him to take a harrowing 20 hour bus ride from Sweden to Berlin, just to save a few Euros. Before "Black Cab," in accented but clear English, he relates a story about being at the "dude-fest in Austin," and how he was besieged by legions of people handing him their business cards, which sparked a new hobby of building houses of cards from business cards. "Hopefully," he joked, "the people in LA will continue giving me business cards."
And That's a Pretty Nice Haircut
But for all his ingratiating tendencies, Lekman would be just another nice, occasionally melancholy dude with a guitar were it not for his undeniable ear for melody. Lifting samples from everyone from The Bluebirds to fellow Swedish cohorts, The Tough Alliance, Lekman's tunes would ostensibly be difficult to re-arrange live. And when Lekman came out on an acoustic guitar accompanied only by a guy with a sampler, I feared that this was going to be another one of those "sad bastard" indie shows that I'd wandered into (word to Lightspeed Champion).
Then about five minutes in, after introducing a song as being "about all the bullshit," Lekman's backing band came out: a Viking troupe of Nordic women who Jens has probably ran through like Magic Johnson with the Laker Girls circa '84 (or not). With this mini-orchestra intact, Lekman ran through most of his last record, the excellent A Night Falls on Kortedala as well as the highlights of its predecessor, Oh You're So Silent, Jens, including "Black Cab," "Maple Leaves," and "A Sweet Summer Night on Hammer Hill," with its nostalgia-inducing flashback of being a teenager and listening to Warren G's "Regulate" in the summer of 93. Granted, "Regulate" came out in the summer of 1994, but "3" rhymes with "G" and besides, he's Swedish, what're you gonna do?
As a front-man, Lekman has a star quality without coming off as histrionic or arrogant. In fact, he's a bit timid but uses it to his advantage, dead-panning sarcastic asides without being obnoxious. If you aren't paying attention, it's easy to mistake Lekman's sweetness for sappiness, but his song's lush sugary arrangements are carefully and exquisitely arranged, with slice-of-life narratives that feel more like short stories than songs. Not to mention that his Swedish Sinatra croon is one of the best in music. Still only 26, Lekman looks like one of the rare songwriters worth paying attention to for the duration of his career. Let's just hope he gets a better nickname than "the Pope of Mope."