October 1 at the
Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington,
Ind., along with opening act
Taken By Trees.
By Steven Rosen
It may seem strange for Jens Lekman – the Swedish
singer-songwriter of worldly, romantic pop songs rendered with the wry lyrical detail
and rhythmic flourish of a post-dance music Burt Bacharach – to start his North
American tour in support of the new I
Know What Love Isn’t in Bloomington,
Ind. One thinks of his audience
as cosmopolitan and urban, and the other shows mostly will be in big cities.
But Bloomington is home to his label, Secretly Canadian.
(It’s also Indiana University’s home.) And he’s now been there frequently
enough, he told his audience at the city’s restored downtown movie palace, that
he’s become something of a local celebrity. “Not being a stranger here anymore,
I have to do a really good show,” he explained from the stage. Then he named
some of the businesses where he has become a familiar face and where
shopkeepers have wished him good luck on this tour.
They needn’t worry. Lekman and his four band members – plus
a “fifth,” a trusty Roland SP-404 portable sampler that he keeps on a stand
near him – clearly established that he is a budding pop star with an
irresistibly appealing live act. Dressed in a sport coat and wearing a dark cap
and slacks that contrasted with his white shirt and shoes, holding an acoustic
guitar that he could sway like a dance partner when excited, he conveyed his
enthusiasm throughout the show.
His color-coordinated band seemed to get high off his good
spirits – Julia Rydholm was the happiest bassist in showbiz, violinist Josefin
Runsteen played barefoot, pianist Jonas Abrahamsson provided flourish and
grandeur, and drummer Hampus Ohman Frolund kept
the beat in the forefront. (Maybe a little too in the forefront – he seemed to
rush Lekman through the finest song on his new album, the delicately intricate
“The World Moves On.”)
It took only the second number for most of the first-floor
audience of primarily college students to get out of their seats and stand near
the stage to be close to him. And they stayed there. He’s still a developing
act commercially – about two-thirds of the theater’s 600 seats were filled –
but he has 100% commitment from his fans.
As a singer-songwriter, Lekman has the rare ability to
seemingly create melody with his voice and let the music fall into place behind
him. There are all sorts of stops and starts, shifts in time and meter,
unexpected choruses and rousing sing-along moments. The melody just seems to naturally,
organically develop -elegantly, poignantly and spontaneously – from his voice
And that music pops and swings as if untethered. It’s very
danceable and disco-influenced but never regimented or monotonously repetitive.
It’s a rare trait for a singer-songwriter – mid-1970s Jackson Browne had it
(“For a Dancer”) and Morrissey, too. And Lekman’s lyrics are equal to his
peers, very personal and emotional but fleshed out with fascinating details
from his well-traveled life and his romantic encounters and heartbreaks.
At the Bloomington show, he took time to offer stories
behind some of the songs. “Waiting for Kirsten,” from last year’s An Argument With Myself EP, was about hoping Kirsten Dunst would
show up at a Swedish club to meet him after she had expressed interest in his
music. As he explained, she did arrive while he was inside but the club –
committed to egalitarianism in its admission policies – made her wait in line,
so she left.
And he prefaced “A Postcard to Nina,” the hauntingly lovely
song about a young German woman who tells her father that Lekman is her lover
to hide the fact she’s gay, with a story about being invited to a German
vegetarian dinner at their home. “I didn’t know they had German vegetarian
food,” he said.
On his new album, he’s moving toward more classically
constructed songs like “Become Someone Else’s,” “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots”
and “I Know What Love Isn’t.” They maintain their stateliness live without
Actually, on record they often are infused with melancholy.
Lekman on stage balances even his most introspective songs with the happiness
he feels as a performer. At one point, bopping around the stage and moving his
hands as if flapping wings, the thin Lekman goofily reminded one of Pee Wee
Herman. And when he punches the buttons on his sampler, one never knows what
might happen – hypnotic metronome beats, a saxophone solo or, during the
euphoric “The Opposite of Hallelujah, ”
a snatch of an oldie with a similar melody, Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me
Just a Little More Time.”
To start the first encore, the sampler provided the swirling
harp intro, before the band kicked in, to Night Falls Over Kortedala’s anthemic “Your Arms
Around Me.” It’s a marvel of vividly singular songwriting, paralleling an
accident while slicing an avocado with a declaration of love to a devoted
partner, that is both intimately touching and weird. It was a crowd favorite.
And he closed the show by quietly playing acoustic guitar
while singing “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name” from the new album. (An
instrumental version began the show.) His voice unadorned had the introspective
resonance of Paul Simon on what seemed like a folk song. It brought the concert
The show opened with a set from Taken by Trees, a band led
by Victoria Bergsman (the Concretes) that was celebrating its new album Other Worlds. The album’s music had been
inspired by her visit to Hawaii, but the live band – featuring spare and edgy
guitar work from Matt Popieluch and Dan Iead’s lap-steel-guitar/bass work –
gave the songs more of a country-tinged, moody, post-Velvet Underground
alternative-rock vibe. Bergsman explained they had a problem getting to the gig
on time, and she seemed tired and struggling vocally. The set got stronger as
it continued, however, ending with the lilting, transfixing “Dreams” from the