As Victoria Bergsman bid the crowd farewell after her plaintive opening set at Terminal 5 on Monday night, she mumbled a self-deprecating offhand command to enjoy the following set, because it was “a lot more fun than [hers].” All apologies to Bergsman, but she couldn’t have been more correct. Jens Lekman was more affable than one could ever imagine, and his crack backing band rendered his tracks in their most potent forms conceivable.
But first we’d be treated to a set from the Bergsman-fronted fellow Swedes and Secretly Canadian labelmates Taken By Trees. Dealing heavily in the breezy folkicisms that she outlined in her landmark effort East of Eden, Bergsman and a crew of multi-instrumentalists blasted through a tight set of newer material. Largely eschewing the drive of Other Worlds in favor of saccharine slide work that popped up throughout the new record, Bergsman’s foresty tunes manifested themselves as fantastical micro-environments, (other worlds, even?). When the band stripped back, trading in drums for ethereal synthesizers and a drum machine, Bergsman’s tiny coo ran circles around the sparer instrumentation, drawing even clearer lines between her newest work and Twin Sister’s ‘80s minded tunes.
But despite whatever effort Victoria Bergsman put forth, she knew–we knew–that the night belonged to Jens. His keyboard player took to the stage alone to replicate the music-box intro of “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name” before Lekman emerged and the band ripped through a run of I Know What Love Isn’t material.
It was never more clear than on Monday how much of Lekman’s songwriting is reliant on storytelling to carry the day. Brief backgrounds preceded most songs, lending a literalness to the songs that might not have previously been apparent. I mean, the green-card marriage in “I Know What Love Isn’t” seemed once a clever turn of phrase–a pessimistic, pithy statement on the seemingly minuscule value of love in the face of recent heartbreak–but as Lekman outlined, the events in the song took place not two summers ago. Living with a friend in Australia, Lekman thought he might like to stay, but realized he couldn’t because “then [he] couldn’t tell the story. And that’s hard to do when you are Jens Lekman.”
Similar exposition preceded the stalkery Sweden-championing manifesto “Waiting For Kirsten” and intertwined itself in “A Postcard to Nina” (which functioned as a capstone to the night). There’s something to be said for the idea of knowing the backstory taking away some of the magic, but when Lekman lets his stories fly, they augment rather than supplant; adding new details to the already vivid tales in his songs. These little details enhance the emotional truth of the songs rather than detract, lending an honest air, taking away some of the clever jokes but replacing them with the idea of Jens as a conduit for these stories rather than a creator. This is Lekman’s crazy life, and we’re fortunate that he’s letting us in.
Such a lengthy discussion of the thematic implications of Lekman’s storytelling sells short the flawless renditions of these songs. Supplanted by horns on “A Postcard To Nina,” Lekman and co. settled into the familiar swing and bubbled with the professionalism of a band far beyond their years. New songs (even unreleased tracks) were bookended by brassed out and violin smeared takes on old favorites.
There was some murmuring that Jens might have been enough to fill out the massive sterility of Terminal 5. Though the venue wasn’t packed to the gills, Lekman’s band proved themselves worthy of the stage, and through his intimate storytelling he was able to transform the clinical nature of the venue into something much more homey.
It was only fitting then that when the night came to a close, Lekman took to the stage alone, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar to reprise the melody from “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name.” This song represented Jens at his most metaphorical and his most spare, stripping away all those previously outlined elements that made this show so special. A hush fell over the room and Lekman’s reedy voice and lightly plucked arpeggios washed over those gathered. Unadorned by the largess of brass and string, and unaccompanied by verbose exposition, Lekman led the crowd in a brilliantly stifled singalong. It wasn’t so much an antithesis to the 70 minutes that came before as a fitting capstone; a brilliant and stark closer to an hour-plus of boisterous smirking.