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The Need for Swede

Jens Lekman is a Nordic sensation who still can't get a date.

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Lekman loves you, and that's no lie.
  • Lekman loves you, and that's no lie.

When Swedish pop star Jens Lekman plays the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago this weekend, he'll have a blind date: Realizing that his guest list for the 38-band bill "looked sad and empty," Lekman posted a contest on his website. He was unsatisfied with the simple, cowbell-and-snare meter he'd recorded for a new song, so he asked his fans for a replacement, submitted either online or through an answering machine.

"How about sampling your grandpa's snoring? Or the sound of your coffee machine going 'blup . . . blup . . . blop," he wrote. The most creative beatmaster would receive free tickets to both days of music and the VIP pre-party, essentially becoming Jens' guest to the two-day blowout.

This can, of course, be seen as a marketing gimmick to make people aware of Lekman, who's a Grammy winner and chart-topper in Sweden, but still unfamiliar to many indie-pop fans. Really, it's just who he is: A 25-year-old pop-song prodigy, expressing the tragicomedies of his own life through the joys of melodies he's learned from others. A playful young man, he had tickets to give away, so he did just that.

After all, Lekman still manages his own MySpace portfolio of 6,151 friends and answers almost every e-mail to an address posted several places on his website. He equates his in-love inadequacy to an inability to dance the Funky Chicken. He waxes poetic on crushing over a skinny punk girl at an anti-war demonstration. He's a mid-twenties boy who happens to be a standout songwriter.

As such, Lekman can be petulant. Sometimes he wears his emotions on his sleeve, acting out before the whole world. Last fall, burdened by the increased pressures of his trans-Atlantic popularity and at-home celebrity, Lekman announced 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, a daytime-only gambling respite for the elderly.

"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," offers Lekman 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 for himself his role as a musician. A string of Japanese shows in March finally convinced him he loved his job, setting the stage for a return to the prolific songwriting he's indulged since he was five.

Before the break, he was frustrated at being misrepresented in interviews but Lekman returns with a new attitude -- "I've stopped being obsessed with the truth, and I am now encouraging all medias and big mouths to misquote me, misunderstand me, and generally lie as much as they want" -- and renewed vigor, suggesting in his missive, "I'm so back in business now," a week before heading to America for a 12-show tour. Several dates sold out three weeks in advance.

But sellouts and key festival appearances aren't just appreciation for the end of a hiatus. Lekman isn't some enigmatic cult icon returned from brief retirement in a European basement. His success is properly placed adulation: The brilliant flip side of his impulsive career moves is his uncomfortably honest songwriting, painted by sing-song sadness, textured arrangements, and having-friends-over collaboration.

Lekman's ebullient pop songs are gluttonous arrangements stuffed with horns, glockenspiels, and samples by his favorite bands. "You Are the Light (By Which I Travel Into This and That)," from When I Said, sounds as overblown as Belle & Sebastian recreating Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, horns and strings leavening a quickened Mersey beat through a built-for-memory, multitracked chorus, as Lekman tells the girl he loves that he used his one jail phone call to dedicate a song to her.

He balances his guileless bounce with understated ballads on piano and acoustic guitar, sad-eyed affectations in hyperbole tantamount to his high-end enthusiasm. "If You Ever Need a Stranger (To Sing at Your Wedding)," which follows "Light," uses a gossamer piano melody and hand percussion to back his pensive whistle and sensitive voice.

But Lekman's young blood peeks through as difficult-to-deny iconoclasm, especially when his songs are sorted into these two extremes. The most shining pop songs he writes may be about getting dumped by a girl who sobs as she tells him she hates her life so much she has to leave. He even dares make it funny: "I thought she said maple leaves/And when she talked about the fall, I thought she talked about Mark E. Smith/I never understood at all," he sings through a melody bustling enough to put the Go! Team to shame, playing out severe heartbreak over a sonic tapestry more like the soundtrack to falling in love than out of it.

True to his nature, the affection in "You Are the Light" is neurotically obsessive, and "Stranger," which sounds like the saddest song ever written, is nothing more than Lekman's ode to endless love: "You think it's funny/My obsession with the holy matrimony/But I'm just so amazed to witness true love."

Lekman approaches his songwriting choices with the same contrarian wit that graces his songs. "It is a disability," he says. "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."

All his songs and images -- from making out with a girl in a Nietzsche shirt in church to leaving a party because he considers himself a drag -- come from his life, he says.

"I always write very straight about things that happen," he writes. "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."

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