One of two things can happen to an artist in this day and age if he withdraws from the public eye for awhile: he can either make a triumphant return and pack concert venues or find himself irrelevant and without a fan base. Although five years passed between Jens Lekman’s highly acclaimed Night Falls Over Kortedala and his decidedly downbeat return I Know What Love Isn’t, the Swedish troubadour has no reason to fear a nosedive into the latter category.
Lekman’s music has always been a strange mash-up of heartbreaking yearning and symphonic sampling, cozy little pop tunes with emotional hooks that draw on the melodicism of the Smiths and the droll humor and dry delivery of the Modern Lovers. In concert, Lekman has always been best during the naked moments, especially in encores past when he played “Pocketful of Money.” The emotional honesty, coupled with Lekman’s performance, often compelled the audience members to sing along.
The first portion of the most recent Portland show, in front of a full and fetid audience, concentrated on the new material. Lekman fronted a five-piece band, much smaller than touring incarnations past. Viktor Sjöberg, who has previously toured with Lekman and served as samples DJ, was absent. Clad in a dark suit coat and a black cap, Lekman looked considerably older than when I saw him last. Without a word, the band commenced with “Become Someone Else’s.” There were no samples. It felt like a true rock band.
Lekman is an often gregarious performer and he punctuated his set with pungent and poignant stories, dedicating “I Know What Love Isn’t” to the heartbroken and “The End of the World is Bigger than a Broken Heart” to the heartbreakers. He compared his hometown of Gothenburg to the rain swept streets of a Portland. As usual, Lekman was a humorous raconteur, even copping to a crush on Kirsten Dunst after the actress claimed she liked his music.
While the audience sat respectfully through the new material, it was the appearance of older songs that roused them to their feet to dance. When the opening beats of “The Opposite of Hallelujah” followed a non-LP new cut, the Aladdin’s aisles slowly became choked with dancing fans, compounded even further with the slowed-down strains of “Black Cab.”
After a solo rendition of “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots” and “Erica America,” Lekman dispensed with the new material by asking, “Do you want to do some dancing?” He then closed out the first set with “Into Eternity” and “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar,” to the delight of the enraptured multitudes gathered along the theater walls and clogging the arterial exits of the aisles. It was so much fun that I will even forgive the reintroduction of canned music into his set.
By the time Lekman and band reappeared, most of the crowd was standing up. After a ramshackle and somewhat silly “An Argument with Myself,” Lekman pulled out crowd favorite “A Postcard to Nina.” If you have seen Lekman before, you know the story/song shtick but it’s an expected, if not a bit overlong, portion of the act. Rather than finish with one of his own tunes, Lekman invited openers Taken by Trees onto the stage for a rendition of Neil Young’s “Lotta Love.” While more Nicolette Larson than Young, the song capped off a triumphant return for Lekman and his clutch of sadly romantic tunes. Hopefully he doesn’t need to have his heart broken to tour our shores again.