[31 March 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
I consider myself fortunate in that I managed to catch Peter Bjorn and John perform live on the tail end of their Writer’s Block tour in 2008 when I was living in Toronto, Canada. It was a wild and energetic set, although some Torontonians at the club that night, being the snobbish and cold sort that Torontonians can be at times, headed for the exits once the trio performed their “hit” halfway through—that hit being “Young Folks”. It’s really too bad, because these folks missed what was the definite highlight of the night. The penultimate song played was, if I’m recalling things correctly, “Up Against the Wall”, which segued into a bit of a wild card: a cover of Joy Division’s “Transmission”. When singer Peter Morén started intoning us to “Dance, dance, dance, dance / Dance to the radio”, it was a moment of utter transcendence. Although the band has, in part, flirted with the post-punk stylings of Elvis Costello, it seemed readily apparent to me, and likely the gaggle of people who were still left, that this would be the direction they would take in the wake of the monumental, stunning Writer’s Block, an album that strongly resonated with me as I bought it not long after moving to the city. (It seemed to capture the essence of wandering around a new, foreign place, captured in such great baroque pop gems like “Amsterdam” and “Paris 2004”, and I wound up listening to the record so much that, truthfully, I could probably live without ever hearing it again.) Anyhow, that one moment during the show, with Morén straddling the microphone stand like a man possessed as his band mates thrashed around him, seemed to point the way to the future by reaching into the past. I was excited. I was caught completely by surprise. I desperately wanted to see what Peter Bjorn and John would do next.
What they did next, of course—if you don’t count the limited edition dalliance that was Seaside Rock—was an utter abomination. That record, 2009’s Living Thing, took away one the band’s core strengths—the shimmery guitar—and replaced it with synthetic synthesizers and tunes that actually weren’t really all that tuneful. I’ve listened to Living Thing no less than five times and certainly no more than 10 since its release. Fans probably won’t like me saying so (the album probably does have its fans considering it cracked the Top 100 of the Billboard 200), but if you want to hear the sound of a group of guys trying to pass a bowling ball out of their excretory tract in a recording studio, pick up that LP. Where Writer’s Block was effortlessly, mind-blowingly poppy and keenly awash in beautifully rendered character studies, Living Thing sounded forced and laboured, and had some of the most god-awful lyrics that made you want to take a Brillo Pad to your ears. (Sample: “Hey, shut the fuck up boy / You are starting to piss me off / Take your hands off that girl / You have already had enough.”) Instead of reaching for Joy Division, the band decided that they suddenly wanted to be Sweden’s answer to a-ha. Living Thing was a shock to the system, a blow to the gut, and though I pretty much have everything Peter Bjorn and John have committed to wax (I even own Seaside Rock), I more or less wrote those guys off with that album.
You get the sense, after playing the band’s new, sixth release, Gimme Some, that Peter Bjorn and John also knew a change was in order. You can hear it on the stand-out track “Second Chance”, where Morén knowingly intones, “You can’t, can’t count on a second chance / The second chance can never be found”. That line looms like a spectre over the record, as though Peter Bjorn and John understand, pessimistically, that this might be the last attempt at being relevant after the letdown of Living Thing. And, waddya know?, they’ve gone back to the drawing board—going so far as to hire an outside producer in Per Sunding for the first time in their career—and have completely done a 180 from the dead end that Living Thing represented. For one thing, the guitars are back and roar to life in places, and there’s a sense of newfound urgency, not to mention a break-neck pace, that informs the proceedings—two of the album’s 11 songs barely crack the 90-second mark. Plus, Gimme Some is all about rhythm in that drummer John Eriksson and bassist Björn Yttling are constantly locked down into an unwavering groove with the type of precision that bears scrutiny under a jeweler’s magnifying lens. What’s more, a couple of the songs open up with nothing but a cavernous, room-engulfing drum fill. The songs have an edge to them, and while these are cuts about lost love, they never come across as cloying or silly. For all intents and purposes, Gimme Some is the logical follow-up that should have come on the heels of Writer’s Block. It’s a real return to Peter Bjorn and John’s roots in many respects, though with a much harder, aggressive edge.
Costello-esque opener “Tomorrow Has to Wait” signals the newfound intent to return to the band’s rock beginnings with a jangly two-chord guitar lick that practically levitates over a tribal beat pounded out by Eriksson, and snugly takes its place in the Peter Bjorn and John canon alongside first song gems like “I Don’t Know What I Want Us to Do” and “Far Away, By My Side”. At first blush, “Dig a Little Deeper”, which follows, seems like a re-write of Writer’s Block’s “Let’s Call It Off” with its Caribbean flavour and calypso vibe—all that’s missing is the steel drums from the latter. However, the bongos from “Young Folks” make a welcome return during a break, and Morén’s chicken scratch guitar work is wonderfully danceable. But that doesn’t prepare you for the knock-out that comes next: “Second Chance”. The song is pure, unadulterated power pop complete with the requisite cowbell and a wah-wah guitar riff in the solo that out-Framptons Peter Frampton. It is a delight to behold: A track that begs you to play it on repeat and doesn’t grow old through the repetition. And that’s not all. There are a bevy of highlights to be found on Gimme Some, and I would go so far to say that there’s not one bad apple in the bunch.
There’s a real sense of working out issues on the album. “Breaker Breaker” is all 1977 and full-on punk rock, with seemingly eyebrow-raising lyrics in “I’m going to break your arm in concentration” and “I’m going to break your nose and sing about it”. However, since the band seems to be firing on all cylinders and having a great deal of fun, you can pretty much write that lick off as mere playfulness and not misogyny. Similarly, the Yttling-sung “Black Book” is propulsive in its three-chord strut, and it seems natural that someone was listening to a lot of the Ramones before putting pen to paper on that track—not to mention that the sound you hear is one of a group that seems to be actually enjoying itself. “(Don’t Let Them) Cool Off” has the same pedal-to-the-metal cadence of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, and is the sort of thing that empty freeways were invented for. (To play music, obviously.) And then there’s the Eriksson vocal turn on final cut “I Know You Don’t Love Me”, which seems to be run on the perpetual motorik fumes that the best of Krautrock has to offer. It’s a natural companion to Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, but arrives at its destination in a comparatively brief five minutes and change.
In delivering such a strong album with Gimme Some, the real question that you probably want answered is: Is it even better than Peter Bjorn and John’s masterpiece, Writer’s Block? That depends. Gimme Some is probably the most consistent and even album that they’ve delivered front-to-back, which also means that it doesn’t quite scale the same heights as the very best songs on Writer’s Block. That’s a polite way of saying that there’s no outstanding, punch-you-in-the-face piece of brilliance like “Young Folks” to be found here (though “Second Chance” comes very, very close). That also means that Gimme Some doesn’t have the valleys that populated Writer’s Block as well. (Exhibit A: “Poor Cow”). I would say that Writer’s Block has perhaps an edge for me personally, as it was my introduction to the band, and it was more or less was a soundtrack to life in the bright lights, big city of the Big Smoke. However, Gimme Some is far from being a runner-up or an also-ran. If you were to put both discs at opposite ends of a scale, I think—after listening to Gimme Some addictively over and over again—they would pretty much even themselves out. Indeed, the band was not screwing around by putting an image of a severed hand with three thumbs pointing upwards on their album cover, a sign that there’s a sense among the band that this one’s a winner. It might seem like a stunning revelation to those who tuned out after Living Thing, but Gimme Some reveals a band that is reinvigorated, one that has remembered what it was like to make music without forcing the issue. And there’s not much more to say, except: welcome back, guys. You were missed. All—yes, even all of Living Thing—will be forgiven if you continue to deliver records as delightful as this one.