Photos by Dakota Aresenault
“Trump said something happened in Sweden…and everyone in my country has been trying to figure out what it was. But I know what happened. On February 17, my new album came out.” Met with cheers, Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman celebrated the recent release of Life Will See You Now, a new direction of layered, upbeat production enhancing his tradition of enchanting storytelling and layered melodies.
His first time back in Toronto in 5 years, Lekman brought an eclectic, energetic and surprisingly dancey show to the Great Hall, the perfect venue for a cozy-feeling sold out show on a snowy Monday night. Following Portland’s Lisa/Liza and their haunting psych-folk sound (a bit of a sleepy opener, if you ask me), Lekman got the crowd going with acoustic renditions of a few of the tracks from his new album. Lekman has a habit of telling wonderful stories about himself and “introduced himself as Jens” as he sings in the new album’s opening track and first song of the night To Know Your Mission.
With just a guitar in hand and an empty stage, Lekman’s voice was strong and consumed the Great Hall. It was evident that his album vocals needed little production when he was replicating and enhancing every note on stage. He followed To Know Your Mission with Evening Prayer and How Do I Tell Him before welcoming his bassist, drummer and keys/synth-player onstage for a rocking rendition of What’s That Perfume That You Wear?, the lead single off Life Will See You Now. Described as “Caribbean folk,” the live version was an even more raucous affair, seguing into Sipping on the Sweet Nectar from his popular 2007 album Night Falls Over Kortedala.
With his all-female band behind him, Lekman roared through a few more album tracks bringing an exciting vibrancy to the already engaging lyrics. Before bringing out arguably his most well-known song The Opposite of Hallelujah, Lekman lamented the snow falling outside and noted he was “stuck” in Toronto for another day and solicited ideas from the crowd (many of which can’t be printed). Every opportunity for banter gave Lekman an opportunity to showcase the enchanting storytelling he’s known for.
The Opposite of Hallelujah was driven by Lekman’s drummer and the oh-so-necessary string section backing track, and featured a great synthy ending to breathe new life into the 10-year-old tune. Recounting the difficulties in his life while working on his 2012 album I Know What Love Isn’t, Lekman sang that album’s title track in something of a vocal showcase – as much as can be expected from his lower register. Unsurprisingly, he sounded great and took the sadness of that song to segue into the much more joyous and absurd How We Met, The Long Version from his new record.
Lekman did rely on some canned backing tracks throughout the show which certainly added to the album-like sound, but it was noticeable when absent. During Wedding in Finestere, one of the few songs played by the full band without a backing track, the live keys seemed out of place, but Lekman’s voice and near-perfect memory of his complex lyrics more than made up for it.
Bringing his main set to a close, Lekman invited the audience to “sing along, but just be gentle, like you’re in a church or something,” to Black Cab, one his oldest tracks. Having mostly listened to his last three albums (from ”Kortedala” onward, like some of his fans), I wasn’t as familiar with the tune but the Great Hall’s acoustics made Lekman and the audience sound great together. He ended the set with the last track off Life Will See You Now, Dandelion Seed, giving himself and his band a quiet moment to listen to the backing track strings play them out.
After possibly the shortest encore break I’ve ever seen (maybe 15 seconds, tops), Jens and his band of merry Swedish rockers returned to the stage with Maple Leaves. This upbeat encore-opener (a cheerier rendition of the original album version) really showed the direction Lekman is heading, from quieter more insular production to the louder, more boisterous and beat-driven tunes on his new album. Finishing the song, Lekman commented that he always feels extra special playing Maple Leaves while in Canada.
In the first attempt to bring the show to a close, Lekman played “A Postcard to Nina,” one of his most animated short stories in song form. The audience seemed to know every word (just like What’s That Perfume That You Wear? and The Opposite of Hallelujah), but Lekman had fun with it inviting the crowd to take over for some his sillier lines (an audience favourite being “out of office auto replies” – how often do you hear that in song form?). Before the song ended, he signed off with “Yours truly, Jens Leman,” which makes me wonder if he always uses this as a last song because it couldn’t be more perfect.
But Lekman wasn’t done, returning to the stage for two more “last” songs – he really didn’t want to leave the stage, but did invite everyone to meet him at the merch booth where “we don’t have much merch, but I have a cold, so if you feel like missing the next few days of work come over and give me a hug.” Take the stage solo once again, and bookending the show with a man alone on stage with his guitar, Lekman performed I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots followed by Pocketful of Money. This closing sing-along (“I’ll come running with a heart on fire”) gave us a chance to sing Jens out but also remind us that, contrary to some of his older tunes and in line with his upbeat new direction, Jens Lekman does know what love is.