by Brian Howe
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Monday, Oct. 15
“How are you doing, Norf Carolina?” Jens Lekman asked at the Cat’s Cradle Monday night, half-sincere and half-droll, in that unmistakable Swedish accent that turns father into “fodder” and you into “chew.” Lekman is the epitome of love-it-or-hate it, singing elaborately written and arranged vignettes in a voice like buttered velvet. His lean, dynamic indie-pop songs are pumped up with all kinds of glorious schmaltz, pilfered from the furthest reaches of taste—smooth saxes, beatnik interludes, magical flutes, cozy strings, patrician reggae, saucy calypso. His lyrics mix extravagant sentiment and hilarious banality in true stories of stalking Kirsten Dunst through Gothenberg or posing as the paramour of a German friend at an awkward Meet the Parents-style family dinner. The net effect is as if Belle and Sebastian hired a team of comedy writers and were arranged by Henry Mancini. It’s safe to say that we ticketholders at the Cradle were firmly in the love camp, though a few grizzled rock-veteran employees surely had a rough night of it.
Rather than focusing on his soft-toned new record, I Know What Love Isn’t, Lekman pulled songs from all three of his albums and the superb An Argument With Myself EP, as befits a showman of his caliber and winking self-regard. Before playing the title track from the new record, Lekman told us it was written for a friend in his temporary home of Melbourne whom he considered marrying so he could stay there. The issue was “not being able to tell the story because it would be illegal, which is a big problem when you’re Jens Lekman.” It was a delight to hear a consummate storyteller expand on his songs, especially “Waiting for Kirsten.” He talked about growing up beside a potato chip factory, clarifying a previously mysterious lyric, and how he had read in a magazine that Kirsten Dunst liked his music. When she was filming with Von Trier in Lekman’s hometown, “What was a potato chip boy like me to do but stalk her maniacally through the night?”
Playing a pint-sized acoustic guitar with aplomb, Lekman came backed by a drummer, a bassist, a keyboardist—who provided many of the exotic timbres in digital form, from steel drums to harp—and a violinist. Samples, both prerecorded and triggered live by Lekman, fleshed out the rhythm section. The set was tightly formed, beginning as a dreamy and eclectic showcase before pivoting, on the touching ballad “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots,” into a dance gig complete with heavy sampler riffs and DJ-style transitions. The music was opulent but also speedy and kinetic, and the strong support gave Lekman plenty of room to do his thing. He doesn’t mind dropping a chord here and there to wave at the audience like Eva Peron receiving adulation, or leaving the microphone to fly around the stage like an airplane. He likes to finish songs with a quick strum, and a bow. During “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” he threw a handful of confetti and “played” the final theme on an invisible toy piano in front of him—in stereo, no less. During an encore of “A Postcard to Nina,” he signed his name—“Yours truly, Jens Lekman”—on the same space, the flowing cursive almost visible in the air.
The most exciting part of the night was a new song that didn’t make I Know What Love Isn’t but should make the next album, “which hopefully,” Lekman said to applause, “won’t take me five years to finish.” Dealing metaphorically with his “brief time in the jewelry business,” it began in typical fashion with a prolix vocal melting over acoustic chords. When a harsh half-time electronic drum dropped, I thought, “Can it be? No!” But it was true—a monstrous synthesizer drop at the end of the song confirmed that, just when we thought Lekman had done it all, he was now working his indie-pop alchemy on freaking dubstep.
It was my moment of the year. I’m used to leaving concerts with ears sore from noise, but a face sore from grinning is rarer thing.