Shitty music has given bubblegum a bad name. Which is a shame, because gum is delicious. But musically, it can associate groups unfairly with the mainstream garbage of the bubblegum kingdom and makes the phrase seem negative when it's actually used as a positive, such as in the following:
Jens Lekman is pure bubblegum.
See, not fair. Now the witty Swedish songwriter is lumped with the likes of Hanson in Google Purgatory whenever someone types in “bubblegum pop.”
Yet it's true. Lekman is bubblegum to the core. What else describes a singer whose songs contain onomatopoetic choruses mimicking heartbeats while sampling “Heat Wave?” He has a knack for sweet lyrics and catchy hooks. He's charismatic and well composed. He uses high-pitched bells in his songs on a regular basis.
How else can you describe music that's based in sugar, but so very easy to chew on for hours? Is Jens Lekman a kitten, perhaps? Maybe (kittens have claws.) But his music is bubblegum that comes in many flavors, from sugar-bursting sweetness to lip-puckering sour. His songs contain a somberness that belies their narrative comedy—most of his works have a story to tell—and sing-songy choruses laced with many, many samples keep the man in a realm all his own.
Lekman's show Saturday at Wonder Ballroom almost didn't happen. Following a long set by ball-busting stand-up comedienne Tig Notaro—a strange choice for those unfamiliar with Jens' often sidesplitting lyricism—Lekman took the stage looking pale. Not Swedish pale, but ill. “Usually I don't play sitting down,” he said as he took a stool. “I've come down with something.” He explained he was urged to cancel, but wasn't about to pass up a Saturday in Portland. “So if I look at you with puppy dog eyes, you sing the words,” he said coyly before launching into the poppy “I'm Leaving You Because I Don't Love You Anymore,” a prime example of Lekman's knack for making the melancholy seem giddy.
Perched on his stool, Lekman remained the showman, though relegating much movement to his ladies on bass and violin and gentlemen on drums and samples (whose names were drowned out by cheers and could not seem to be found online). He led the audience on call-and-response during such songs as “Black Cab” and the doo-woppy bliss of “Kanske Ar Jag Kar I Dig,” smiling charmingly and clapping all the way. It was evident Lekman loves what he does, frequently closing his eyes during violin solos with a smile draped across his face. He even left his stool to join the rest of the band in stretching his arms out and playing airplane onstage in one very odd, yet inexplicably happy moment.
Plucking at his semi-hit “A Postcard to Nina,” which he introduced as a “gentle response to Proposition 8,” Lekman got into storyteller mode, finally making good use of the stool the sick Swede was confined too. Throughout nearly 10 minutes, he embellished the story behind the song, about his journey to Berlin to visit lesbian friend Nina and her parents, only to be prodded into pretending to be her fiancé over dinner and drawing the admiration of the father. Lekman deadpanned the story between verses, which had an army of girls singing along and the crowd in stitches.
After finishing “Nina” on a high note, Lekman left his stool and began to channel his energy with songs such as “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” “Into Eternity,” and “The End of the World is Bigger than Love” before cutting it short at just more than an hour.
The band returned for a rowdy, sing-along take on “A Sweet Summers Night on Hammer Hill,” with Lekman pounding his chest and describing his heartbeat through a goofy chorus of “ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba.” The band then left the stage, and the charming singer promised “one more, before I start coughing blood.” He then took to one knee, explaining the Swedish custom of kneeling before the queen, before launching into “Sylvia,” a somber song he explained is about a pact he made with the queen in a childhood dream before realizing she's just “an old conservative bitch.”
“Thank you Portland, you have cured me,” Lekman said upon finishing the melodic song and leaving the stage.
Apparently, a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down—and it's ok to swallow bubblegum.
Photo courtesy of Jens Lekman