Heart on a Record Sleeve

When Swedish pop star Jens Lekman recently played Intonation in Chicago, he set up a blind date for himself.

Realizing that his guest list for the 38-band bill “looked sad and empty,” Lekman posted a contest on his Web site to find a rhythm sample — and some company.

“The most creative beatmaster would receive free tickets to both days of music and the VIP pre-party, essentially becoming Lekman’s guest to the two-day blowout,” he promised on his Web site.

What might have been a marketing gimmick for other acts was, for 25-year-old Lekman (a chart topper in his native Sweden who remains unfamiliar to many American indie-pop fans), another manifestation of his playful naiveté. (Lekman also manages his own MySpace portfolio of 6,151 friends and personally answers almost every e-mail.)

Last fall, burdened by the increased pressures of a trans-Atlantic career and at-home celebrity, Lekman announced that he was quitting music, selling his gear, entering a songwriting hiatus and picking up a day job. He did it, too, deleting 200 unreleased songs from his computer and wearing a uniform at a bingo hall.

“I tried working in a bingo hall for a few days, but before the week had ended, I just walked out in the middle of my shift, didn’t even tell my boss. I just never went back,” Lekman explains in an e-mail from his Swedish home. “Singing is all I really know. I don’t have a proper education. I don’t even have a driver’s license.”

Lekman returned to the stage on New Year’s Eve and continues to tour, slowly working on regaining his momentum while trying to redefine himself as a musician. A string of Japanese shows in March finally convinced him that he loved his job, setting the stage for a return to the prolific songwriting he has indulged since he was 5.

But Lekman isn’t some enigmatic cult figure returning from brief retirement in a European basement. The brilliant flip side of his impulsive nature is his uncomfortably honest songwriting. He gilds his ebullient pop songs with arrangements stuffed full of horns, glockenspiels and samples by his favorite bands (including Arab Strap and Television Personalities). He balances the guileless bounce of these numbers with understated ballads on piano and acoustic guitar.

Lekman is aware of his bipolar songwriting. He quips, “It is a disability. I am comically retarded, which means when I tell you about what hurts inside of me, you will laugh. And when I try to tell a funny story, you will cry.

“I always write very straight about things that happen,” he continues. “I do sometimes change details in my songs, as I do in my personal life. I might tell you I like my fries with ketchup and mayo. That would be a lie. But if I told you I love you, that would be the ugly truth.” <

Categories: Music