If the old saying about songwriting is true—that the ultimate test of a well-written pop song is whether it still sounds great played solo on an acoustic guitar—Jens Lekman’s troubles are over.
Following a full-band concert on Saturday, the Swedish singer-songwriter’s solo outing, held Sunday night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, provided him with an opportunity to let the songs themselves steal the show. Lekman’s recorded music walks a fine line between shimmering indie-pop and orchestral splendor, and especially on his new album Night Falls Over Kortedala, it can veer toward the schmaltzy. However, Sunday night’s spare arrangements underscored the songs’ tight, melodic composition and brilliant lyrics, placing Lekman firmly within the tradition of wry, lovelorn songwriters such as Jonathan Richman and the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt.
Lekman, dressed to the nines and holding a bottle of Red Stripe, played an acoustic guitar and was accompanied only by a bongo player. This freedom allowed him to alter the tempos and melodies of his songs as he pleased, and songs like the opener “Julie” and “You Are The Light” sounded great in their new, loosened form. Several times, Lekman put down his guitar to dance, and during the poignant, hilarious “Postcard to Nina,” he even stopped midway through to tell the story behind the song. With his crooning, sonorous baritone, a weapon as powerful as the songs themselves, Lekman sold every lyric with genuine, palpable emotion.
The singer also proved expert at interacting with the audience, providing ample opportunities for them to sing along and dance to upbeat songs like his newest single, “The Opposite of Hallelujah.” Polite and self-effacing, he apologized for beginning “Black Cab” with too slow a tempo (he went back and started over), but one of the night’s funniest moments came when a woman yelled, “I want to have your babies!” at Lekman. He quickly responded, “I’m not ready to have babies yet!” but then paused and reconsidered, finally reassuring her, “I think I would raise good babies, though. ... Let’s talk about it in the future.”
The show’s one weak point came halfway through, when Lekman came dangerously close to coasting on pretty acoustic ballads. It was at this point that after lifelessly strumming the opening verse of “I Am Leaving You Because I Don’t Love You,” he turned on the instrumental track of the album version and sang along with the song’s upbeat baroque pop. What sounds like a contrived move on paper was, in reality, a shot of adrenaline—Lekman seemed joyous and reinvigorated, and the two lively songs that followed, also anchored by their recorded versions, rescued the show’s energy.
The stripped-down setting and solid mix of material from Lekman’s three albums only highlighted his songwriting prowess. The songs’ unabashed melodicism and dry humor recalled the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs—songs like “Pocketful of Money” and “Shirin” came across as creations unto themselves rather than parts of a greater whole. “The Cold Swedish Winter” perhaps served as the greatest reminder of Lekman’s lyrical abilities—the audience laughed audibly at lines: “When people think of Sweden, I think they have the wrong idea, like Cliff Richards who thought it was just porn and gonorrhea / And Lou Reed said in the film Blue in the Face, that compared to New York City, Sweden was a scary place,” but grew silent and appreciative as the song ended on a note of intense, deeply-felt loneliness and desperation.
Lekman played two encores and saved one of the night’s most memorable moments for the end—his second-to-last song was an unexpected cover of Paul Simon’s classic “You Can Call Me Al.” Lekman’s percussive, funky guitar work and doo-wop inspired vocals elicited cheers from the audience, who clearly loved hearing the Graceland classic as much as the singer enjoyed playing it. It was a fitting tribute to Simon, often regarded as the classic “songwriter’s songwriter,” and, along with the rest of the music that evening, a reminder that Lekman himself has more than enough talent to aspire to similar heights.