And now for a brief commercial interruption. I realize the following is only tangentially related to Jens Lekman week here at OWOB, and I promise that tomorrow we shall return to our exploration in earnest.
Last time I went to see Jens Lekman in Los Angeles, my friend Searcy was supposed to go with me. She’s generally the kind of person that you want in your corner—and we had a nice moment bonding over Jens’ sweet/sad worldview.
Almost the exact moment I was leaving the house to pick her up, she called me and between wheezing breaths told me she was having what she thought was an asthmatic attack and couldn’t go.
I don’t remember being particularly concerned. More just sad my friend felt uncomfortable, and bummed that we weren’t going to get our girls’ night out. I texted her from the show, sent a few quickly snapped photos over, and promised that next time Jens was in town we’d make good on our night out.
That was two years ago. We still haven’t had our Jens date. Searcy’s breathing problems turned out to be a lifelong chronic illness, complete with some seriously out of control medical bills. But for all of the stress her body’s gone through, she’s still a plucky, kind person—more interested in loving those around her than navel gazing.
I know that everyone has their own charity of choice. (::cough:: #ALSIceBucketChallenge ::cough::) I’m a writer by trade, and also well acquainted with experiencing empathy without the funds to back it up. But just in case you have the funds and the desire to toss a dollar or two in the direction of woman with great taste in music and life in general, I’ll leave a link right here.
(Note: I’m going to continue using Jens’ first name instead of calling him Lekman. Trying to maintain an air of informality while exclusively using Lekman feels like I’m writing the world’s worst episode of Orange is The New Black.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jens’ live show since Jessica Gentile shared her memory of attending one of his after parties. Since seeing him in Sweden in 2007, I’ve caught his performance almost ever time he’s come through Los Angeles. (Where I live. Occasionally.)
Over the years, I’ve seen Jens play the role of the budding flirt (inviting a girl on stage to sing directly to her), the cheerleader (congratulating the U.S. the night that President Obama was reelected before performing “The End of the World is Bigger Than Love”), and the uninhibited geek. (Anyone else love the airplane dance moves he’s been known to bust out during “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar?”)
Just being a likeable/talented musician isn’t enough to explain why I’m constantly tempted to quit my job and follow him around in a van. (Err…if that couldn’t technically be considered part of my job.) There are plenty of bands that I only feel compelled to see once or twice an album cycle. It wasn’t until seeing Jens in Poland at last year’s OFF Festival that it hit to me why one of his shows has such a lasting impression.
That performance marked his first time performing in the country. The tent was packed. Sing-alongs were fervent and happened during almost every song. Understandable, right? The real surprise came when he launched into his tried-and-true monologues, explaining the real story behind “A Postcard to Nina” (“Umm, she said. I told my father that you were my fiancé.”), and “Waiting for Kirsten.” (“My friend called me up and said, guess who’s staying at my hotel, and I said, Kirsten Dunst.”) Although Jens had never set foot in their country, and even though English was everyone’s second or third language, the majority of the crowd chanted along with him, anticipating every joke and often finishing his phrases.
Even in the era of Youtube, this is impressive. Not only did these fans causally watch previous performances, they memorized them. One could go so far to claim that a large bulk of their enjoyment stemmed from the fact they could anticipate what came next.
It’s easy to understand why. Jens Lekman’s music is about repacking universal emotions—feeding us our hopes and fears in a way that seems wholly unique and certainly cleverer than anything we could have come up with on our own. But his live shows are ritualized events. The rest of our lives could be going to hell in a handbasket, but on some level we can take comfort in the fact that somewhere, Jens is still cramming a Chairmen of the Board” sample into “The Opposite of Hallelujah.” Like it or not, Jens still be telling us about Nina and Kirsten in 20 years. To alter the aural tradition would be akin to taking away our security blankets.
Below are a few selected live cuts. If you’ve got a favorite video, please add it to the comments! (The first video was filmed by my pals over at The Line of Best Fit. I’m a huge fan of their website, and you should be too.)
Reminder: I want to hear/see your Jens Lekman stories, memories, favorite tracks, and artwork. Hit me up: firstname.lastname@example.org
I swear I had a plan. When I first got the green light to take over OWOB, I made a careful roadmap. I wanted to take you chronologically through the Jens Lekman catalogue, ending with some great epiphany about life and love. (I also wanted you to think I was a genius—but that’s pretty much a universal trait of writers.)
When I woke up this morning, the idea of moving forward with timeline-based entries just seemed so boring. It plays into the (false) narrative of artistic maturation. Are we really supposed to somehow believe that every album is somehow more superior to the last? A few years ago I interviewed The Avett Brothers, who told me something I’ve been thinking about ever since: every artist has a series of themes that he’ll be mulling over, attacking, and rehashing over the course of his entire career. This is true of non-artists as well. There’s no order to how we approach bigger ideas in life.
Obviously when it comes to Jens (we’re on a first name basis a this point, right?), love/heartbreak is a major artistic catalyst. But there’s also a subtler theme that runs through the majority of his music—the desire for escape. He hinted at Night Falls Over Kortedala track “Friday Night at the Drive in Bingo.” (“We could fake our deaths to get insurance money /and take on hippie names I’d be Snowphish, you’d be Sunny.”) By 2011’s An Argument With Myself, he had actually made the break, moving (albeit briefly) to Australia.
When the EP came out I initially dismissed it. It felt like a stopgap. In a review I actually went so far as to condemn it for recycled musical ideas. But secretly I was pinning for a sequel to Night Falls Over Kortadela. (Night Falls Over Gothenburg perhaps?) In the last few years a funny thing happened—I started to identify heavily with the track “An Argument With Myself.” (I also stopped being a jerk, but that’s another story.)
In the tropical, chant-heavy song, Jens captures the exact confusion, exhilaration, and joy that comes with extended travel. You’re your own best friend. You’re your worst company. You’re every voice your head (this goes double if you don’t speak the local language), and the line between acknowledging and cursing the beauty around you is a thing one indeed. If you’re happy the world should be singing along with you. If you’re heartbroken (and he usually is), well…may the saints preserve us.
Admittedly this theme of travel resonates pretty heavily with me. Twelve hours ago, I got home from spending two months abroad. Many elements of this song may seem exaggerated, partially the Paul Simon-style spoken word section in the middle where Jens literally fights with himself. (“You wanna keep fighting?/Yeah, I wanna keep on fighting/Alright, fair enough.”) But there is a certain truth that forcing yourself to redefine the idea of home heightens every other emotion. Backpackers don’t just leave a club, they pour “out like a tidal wave of vomit.” That photo in your pocket isn’t just a relic—it’s a lifeline. Jens’ love (that presumably brought him across the world) and subsequent breakup is one for the history books. Pulling out four boarding passes out of your bag and realizing that none of them is the one that you need to actually get on the plane to go home? That’s an epic fail, you stupid idiot.
Oh sorry, that last bit might have just been me.
As promised, through the week we’ll be checking in with a few devoted Jens Lekman fans. This first walk down memory lane comes from Jessica Gentile. You can find her writing at Paste Magazine, or follow her on Twitter.
Back in 2008, I saw Jens at Webster Hall. At some point during the encore he announced he was having a house party in Brooklyn. We were all invited. Now if you were at Jens prior NYC show, you’ll remember he promised to play an after show gig in Union Square, but got lost in Halloween weekend traffic and thus never made it to the park. He profusely apologized about the incident via personal email correspondence (!!! - just another reason we love Jens, he’s a rock star that responds to emails) and a party it seemed would be ample compensation. Nothing would stand in his way.
We hung around the venue a bit waiting for a glimpse of Jens and some details of this supposed shindig…until evil Webster Hall security guards kicked us out. Undeterred, we clung to the outside exit, amongst a mob of others until he came out. Excuse my fan-girl gushing, but what a friendly guy, so modest, so unpretentious. So willing to snap photos and autographs and just casually chat. One of my friends inquired about the Brooklyn party. Jens told us to take the Q to Beverly Road. “Uhh, and then where do we go?” I asked. “Someone will pick you up from the stop at midnight,” he replied. Uh, ok. This would sound so incredibly sketchy coming from ANY other individual, right? But Jens made the request sound downright innocent, nearly magical, like an invite to a middle school dance from that boy you had a crush on forever, but you swore he never even noticed you existed. This was also before I lived in NYC and at the time had absolutely no sense of Brooklyn geography, but what the hell, I decide to venture deep into an unknown borough for the potential awesomeness of a Swedish pop star after party.
We do it. We actually get there. Along with about 30 people. A gaggle of us just waiting outside the subway station. Every time a car passes by our heads turns. We collectively stop traffic about 17 times. Finally some Swedish-speaking people come by. They tell us to follow. We walk down the block and arrive at a house. A bona fide house. There are houses in Brooklyn apparently. And here we are in some dude’s living room listening to a highly danceable mix of synthy 80s pop, 70s funk and maybe a dash of old-school hip-hop. About an hour later Jens grabs the mic and sings “Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death” and “Into Eternity.” Chanting along to “we’re all gonna die, and we don’t know how and we don’t know when” at 1:30 in the morning is maybe the most liberating feeling in the world. After a downright shitty week, there is comfort in that universal sentiment. We are all gonna die, so we might as well embrace it and we might as well dance. And that’s exactly what we did.
(Photo: Jens Lekman at the 2013 OFF Festival)
Part of Jens Lekman’s enduring success is due to the fact that he recognizes that no matter how successful we are, how much try-harder-do-gooder sprit we inject into our lives, each one of us secretly fears that there will always be one element poised to spiral out of control at a moment’s notice. For Lekman, it’s romance. It’s no wonder that he called his third full-length I Know What Love Isn’t. At 33 years old and five albums in, it’s still the hypothesis he’s yet to solve.
Not for lack of trying. (Naturally.) With the release of his 2004 debut When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog, he positioned himself as the lighthearted counterpart to Morrissey—the perennial romantic sad sack who still has the good manners to contrast his worldview with jaunty pop instrumentals. To quote Pitchfork writer Johnny Loftus, “He’s Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock that’s tearing from the wall, but still smiling at the ladies from beneath his snap brim.” (Damn, I really hate that I didn’t write that.)
His first album is the story of strikeouts. Lekman isn’t the one getting married, he’s just singing at the reception. A psychogirl adopts him in order to make up for a childhood full of neglect. And Julie—oh Julie—seems to not even notice that he’s attempting to court her with an order of French fries and promise of a ring. But nowhere is the contrast more extreme than “You Are the Light (By Which I Travel into This and That).” In it, Lekman gets busted, for “painting a dirty word on your old man’s Mercedes Benz because he told me to do.” It’s okay, it’s a happy ending because, “soon they released me cause the cops were sad and they didn’t know how to prove it.”
The heartbreak isn’t explicit at first. After all, the chorus “You are the light I travel into this and that,” seems downright optimistic, particularly given the sizable horn section that accompanies the proclamation. The punchline to the story lies in the first line, and almost slips by undetected “Yeah, I got busted,” Lekman sings, “so I used my one phone call to dedicate a song to you on the radio.” Not only does this mystery woman have enough sway to inspire petty acts of vandalism, the only way he can communicate with her is through radio requests!
Ouch. Is that offer to be your dog still on the table? At least that would assure him some petting.
Hi everyone. I’m Laura. I’m here to guide you through the wonderful world of Jens Lekman. Hope I can live up to the challenge.
Let’s start by taking a magical trip back 2007. I had just graduated college and was spending the summer in Stockholm the first time I heard a Jens Lekman song. I wish I could say that the world stopped, or that I could even remember exactly what song it was. But it was at a festival pre-party, and the planet continued rotating according to schedule. It wasn’t until much later that afternoon when the revelation set in during his performance that, oh, this guy is good.
It was a scene that wouldn’t have been all that out of place in one of his songs. There I stood, a few pounds overweight and hair just a shade too pink, not 100% sure what I was doing with my life, but determined to do it now. (I’ve always been prone to bouts of romanticism.) Out of nowhere, an attractive (read: HOT) guy strolled up to me, bought me a beer, and started translating Lekman’s Swedish stage banter. Sure, his translations were banal (“He’s making a joke.” “He’s talking about some girl named Nina.”), and my mystery man disappeared as soon as the show was over, not leaving me with so much as his name. But I was hooked. Part of me hopes that this is a mystery that will remain unsolved.
A few months later I was back in Los Angeles, working in a bookstore while interviewing for a string of second-rate PA jobs at third-rate film/television production companies around the city. My rosy post-collegiate worldview was long gone, replaced with cheap wine and America’s Next Top Model reruns. The day Night Falls Over Kortadela came out, I called in sick to work, laid in bed, and listened to it on repeat, anesthetizing myself with someone else’s sadness. I recovered. (Obviously.) Life goes on, and—for the record—it’s better than I could have ever planned. But somehow Lekman always serves as a visceral reminder of those moments in your life when anything is possible, the world is big and full of opportunities, and you’re going to seize it all…well, just as soon as you’re done freaking out about your own inadequacies.
…This may happen more than I’d like to admit.
My week with OWOB has a two-fold mission:
1. To convince you that you need to give Jens Lekman a spin. (Duh.)
2. To figure out what kind of weight his music has if I separate it from my own personal experiences. Admittedly this may or not may happen as it seems nearly impossible to discuss his music without dropping a few embarrassing facts about myself along the way. So there you go. Let’s do this thing.
Finally: If for some reason I’m preaching to the choir (and I sincerely hope I am), hit me up at email@example.com with your favorite Jens Lekman-related story/memory/rant. I’ll try to publish a few later in the week. Shouting into the void is all well and good—but communal music experiences are even better.
Thank you, Jillian!
Next week, we’ll talk about one of my favourites — Swedish indie pop singer-songwriter and all-around charming man Jens Lekman.
Your guide to all things Jens will be Laura Studarus. Laura is an editor with Under the Radar magazine as well as a contributor to MTV, NYLON, Buzzfeed, Paste, and a handful of other publications.
You can find her on Twitter as well as on Tumblr.
See you tomorrow.
David Bowie - Space Oddity (1979)
Fortunately for the structure of this week, Bowie neatly bookended his work in the 1970s between two retellings of the same story: 1969’s “Space Oddity,” and a rerecording of the same song in 1979. Ten years on, Bowie’s hippie folk ballad about a lonely astronaut was turned into a piece of pared-back art rock. Gone are the strings and Stylophone, instead replaced with a jarring, extended period of pure silence and a starkness that only seems to increase the horror of Major Tom’s grim tale. In the span of a decade, Bowie learned the power of restraint and the capacity of musical form to heighten its intended function. The changes made to “Space Oddity” reflect as much about Bowie as they do Bowie’s specific artistic intentions for the song.
The point I have tried to make throughout this week’s exploration of the work of David Bowie is that many of the old clichés about the man are easy and overly simplistic, specifically the idea of David Bowie as a genre-jumping musical chameleon. The template of an ever shifting sound and aesthetic with each new album has become widespread, and even expected, among today’s musical artists. However, repeated reinvention for the sake of reinvention is not what Bowie’s career was truly driven by. Bowie’s changes were always made for a specific personal or artistic reason, and it is a disservice to the spirit of his work to reduce it to the fact of the changes themselves. As long as Bowie remained true to his artistic vision, the core of his work remained constant, specifically the use of narrative, social observation, cultural references, and most importantly the restless pursuit of newness in art.
I have also explored the use of artifice and performance throughout Bowie’s work. The authenticity of David Bowie isn’t a personal one, but rather a certain kind of purity in artistic intent and vision. The poses he struck were always in service of the specific artistic purpose at the center of his work. Furthermore, a conscious use of artifice can illuminate a particular human truth in its own right, from the feeling of alienation to the absurdity of prevailing notions of gender. Through his keen social awareness, David Bowie recognized emerging social, cultural, and musical currents, and through his use of performance, he positioned himself at the forefront of these movements, embodied them, and became a driving cultural force himself. Restless and revolutionary, this is why David Bowie’s work is so fantastic and his legacy so lasting.
And finally, I just want to finish up by thanking you all very much for reading and I want to thank Hendrik for giving me a platform to talk about David Bowie for a whole week! Love on ya!