Jens Lekman's reputation is as one of the great musical storytellers of this century. Over the course of his career, he’s invited us to share in his often hilarious and almost always moving observations of love, friendship, and life. That sounds horrendously cheesy, doesn’t it? Well, that’s sort of the point. If you’re not in the cult of Jens, then it can be a pretty hard sell.
There’s another layer we can add on to this because Lekman is the rarest of things in the modern musical landscape: a pop artist. Sure, there’s popular music out there, in the sense that it belongs to the mainstream; more than enough stuff for grumpy alternative music aficionados to set themselves against. But there’s something that feels uncomfortable about saying that Bieber or Rihanna or Rag‘n’Bone Man make pop music, per se. Somehow the label doesn’t fit comfortably.
While Lekman is never going to be able to rival the aforementioned in terms of actual popularity, there’s something about the songwriting that conforms more with the expectations of pop as a genre – maybe something of a foreign concept to those coming of age in this polymorphous and pansexual musical decade. What are the qualities of pop music, then? Well, it’s a combination of things, really: hooks, the foregrounding of lyrics and singing taken seriously, a lack of anything too edgy or subversive in the lyrical or music content – with the former always relatable, a cult around a personality with which you could have a drink/romantic liaison, high levels of professionality in both songwriting and performance, but maybe most important of all, joyful at heart. Even the songs that seem the most despondent show the way to some kind of happiness, even if it’s only half-remembered.
All of these traits are fully in evidence tonight. Oval Space (it’s an ugly room but a fine venue with good sightlines, good sound, and less prone to overfilling than other London concert halls) is sold out with adoring fans. There’s no doubt that Jens Lekman's music will leave no small number of the serious music-listening populace cold, but there’s nothing half-felt here tonight. It feels like every last attendee of this show, from the front to the back, is here because this music really speaks to them, in a way that few other artists can.
Every song, ranging from his debut collection Oh Jens You’re So Silent to his latest Life Will See You Now, spanning 12 years – during which many of these fans no doubt will have passed through their 20s and maybe even their early 30s alongside Lekman – is met with as high a level of enthusiasm as you could ever expect to find in East London. There’s a real feel-good atmosphere in the room – we’re all delighted to be here, sharing this experience. The rest of the world doesn’t matter; for now all that matters are these songs.
Jens is a bit poorly, he reveals at that start, but that doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the standard of the performance. The first and last number he performs solo with an acoustic guitar, for the rest he’s joined by his all-female band. It’s a highly-polished show (without any consequent loss of soul) from a consummate performer, who strikes the perfect balance between restraint and vitality. It’s hard to pinpoint highs and lows here really, but “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar” and “A Postcard to Nina” from Night Falls Over Kortedala (start here if you remain uninitiated to Jens Lekman) are swooningly brilliant. From the new record, the ridiculous cod-disco swagger of “How We First Met, the Long Version” is ludicrously fun and old classic “Maple Leaves” is what you might call fucking lovely.
His bass guitarist stops to declare how wonderful he is at one point (he gives her a hug in return), but perhaps the moment that best encapsulates the show comes during the encore. A large guy, wearing a shirt and tie clumsily clambers up on to the end of the bar and sways uncertainly along to the song. His ridiculous drunken performance is met with no small amount of mirth but in a way, it seems to make perfect sense. It almost seems like something Jens Lekman would sing about.