Although the exuberant simplicity of the small-run EPs compiled on Oh You’re So Silent Jens suggest a Swedish Jonathan Richman for the iPod age (a suspicion underscored by the deeply relaxed cover of “Someone to Spend My Life With” on Maple Leaves), the killer track in the collection is nothing one would ever expect from the author of “Pablo Picasso” and “Hey There Little Insect.” “Black Cab” (also unveiled, in a different mix, on Maple Leaves) is a small-scale pop glory that begins with a piano/guitar figure lifted from the Left Banke’s “I’ve Got Something on My Mind” and then proceeds to top that song with solemn, self-defeating beauty. It’s not complicated, and the ambivalent lyrics — which shift from social guilt to taxi anxiety — are of distinctly modern vintage, but the elementary tools of baroque chamber pop are wielded so adroitly, and with such eloquent drama, that it feels like a museum piece come to life. A remarkable achievement.
Lekman, a resident of Gothenburg who sings unaccented English in a voice that is clear, handsome, confident and — significantly — never arch, performs most of his songs with little more than acoustic guitar or piano; strings and horns add texture now and again. Clearly aligned with the gravitational axis that runs from Cambridge, MA to Olympia, WA, he plays the hapless innocent romantic outsider and outspoken eccentric as well as Richman ever did (“I Saw Her in the Anti-War Demonstration,” introduced by a Hollies-like guitar figure, describes “punks who were born in leather jackets” and notes that “her thighs were about the same size as mine”). But he also includes the mischievous intimations of Beat Happening (whose Calvin Johnson sings on “Pocketful of Money”; “Another Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill” starts with a familiarly Calvinist a cappella soliloquy) and the melancholy reflections of Mark Kozelek. But there are other elements at play here, like the three songs about deformed Mask subject Rocky Dennis. (Due to a DJ’s confusion regarding a 2004 release, Lekman was, for a time, known professionally as Rocky Dennis.) But he can also dress up as a confident grownup: the punchline-deprived shaggy dog story of “A Man Walks Into a Bar” leads to a romantic account that involves neither self-abasement nor embarrassment. He builds on a weaker joke in “Maple Leaves” (“She said we were just make-believe / But I thought you said maple leaves”), but the relatively grand production (the 7-inch version is clearer sounding than the EP mix also included) carries it aloft. “Julie” is likewise adult in its intentions, which include innocent youth ending marriage. He nonchalantly drops cultural referents from Nietzche to Jagger and breaks the placid surface of his songs with a rhythm-tripping syllable, awkward phrase or incongruous image (“but I would not be accepted / ‘Cause I can’t dance the funky chicken,” from “Sky Phenomenon”).
When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog, a collection of tracks recorded between 2000-’04, is less (in)credible, weighed down by inconsistent songwriting and an unhelpful insinuation of Morrissey’s influence. The disc does boast “Higher Power,” the winning “Julie” and “You Are the Light,” a delight of fizzpop production and possibly the most romantic song ever written about an arrest. (The feverish reprise on the You Are the Light EP, the American version of Julie, is worth hearing as well.) But the spare “Do You Remember the Riots” (the environment of which would be echoed slightly in the far stronger “I Saw Her in the Anti-War Demonstration”) is oddly dispassionate, the reverie of “Tram #7 to Heaven” (first on the Jens Lekman EP) is a flimsy conceit, and the wistful title track, which could not be further from the Stooges (“I wasn’t coming on to you / I just wanted to lick your face”), floats along with little effect.
While it demonstrates that he is a capable concertizer, the seven-song live album displays both the charm and the challenge of Lekman’s music. As with Jon Richman (whose penchant for onstage impetuousness he does not appear to share), Lekman’s unfettered simplicity doesn’t always do the trick; a couple of the tunes feel more like self-conscious delusions of collective campfire hipness (“Happy Birthday Lisa”) than significant artistic performances. But rousing renditions of “I Saw Her in the Anti-War Demonstration” and “You Are the Light” are magic, “They Should Have Given You the Oscar” is a ridiculously entertaining obscure Goffin-King cover, and the brisk strumming underneath “Julie” adds to the lyrics’ ironically suicidal cheer.