Peter Bjorn and John: Writers Block

[8 February 2007]

By Dan Raper

Peter Bjorn and John seem to be the latest Swedish pop group in an illustrious line -– Jens Lekman, Love Is All, The Knife –- to take New York by storm (next up, to the chagrin of the band itself, it’s likely to be I’m From Barcelona). You could be forgiven, after the hubbub “Young Folks” raised last year, in thinking the group are blog-fueled debutantes; but it turns out that Peter Moren, Bjorn Yttling and John Erikkson have been making music together for the past eight years. Writer’s Block is their third album, and it shows a group both confident, with an established dynamic, and beaming in the light of their most triumphantly appealing effort.

So why was “Young Folks” such a phenomenon? Partly because it fit in so well, in the U.S., with the news that Victoria Bergsman had quit her old lot, the Concretes, for a solo career. Then along she comes guesting on this perfect pop song –- with whistling! –- and it captured enough of a mood to have a thousand kids’ earphone-clad heads bouncing on the subway between Williamsburg and Delancey. The melody in question -– the whistle -– is a simple pentatonic triad, almost a second grader’s playground taunt, but turned addictive as hell. It’s not a wonder the song was NME’s second best of 2006 -– if you haven’t heard it, “Young Folks” alone justifies Writer’s Block’s asking price.

And despite critics’ appropriations, the reason Writer’s Block as a whole is so successful is that it’s far more than “Young Folks”, and far more than straight pop. Bjorn Yttling’s production unites the different compositional emphases (all three members wrote songs for the album, and take turns on lead vocals, too), and brings out different pockets of sound in a way that’s diametrically opposed to pop’s characteristic smoothed-over sheen. Specifically, Peter Bjorn and John cultivate a sense of space that is beguiling; drums bounce and fade, vocal lines are either shrouded in echo or separated from the mix to create definitive pockets of sound: vocals, guitars, drums. Added to this, many of these songs don’t prioritize verse-chorus in the same way as traditional pop songs: instead, as on “Up Against the Wall”, melodic snippets of vocal or guitar melody are looped, as if the group can’t help but celebrate this scrap of gorgeous sound it happened on.

The group also likes to have fun with percussion -– from the maraca-onomatopoeia of “Chills” to the warm steelpan of “Let’s Call It Off”, in the single mix that is included on the U.S. release. On the better tracks, such as “The Object of My Affection”, you don’t notice the martial rhythm until right at the end, when it emerges and you realise it’s been driving the song from the beginning.

On the best of these songs, all these elements seem to coalesce into gloriously sweet, summer-pop perfection.  “Let’s Call It Off”, the album’s second single, brings out the chorus with syncopated guitar strums, a neat contrast to the longer lines of the verse. “Amsterdam” is a stoned rock like Demon Days wished it could have achieved, a swirling loop of regret and hazy reminiscence. This Casablanca-esque romantic trope –- “Remember Paris?” -– also fuels “Paris 2004”, a (bitter) sweet (love) song that’s all acoustic strum and romance. 

The characters in Peter Bjorn and John songs are usually in love, usually to the exclusion of everything. On “Paris 2004” the protagonist signs “I’m all about you / You’re all about me / We’re all about each other”; the young folk of “Young Folks” just want to be “talking, only me and you”; and on “Roll the Credits”, “It’s between me and her now / Can’t separate at all.”  In the same sense as that John Donne sonnet, love fills Peter Bjorn and John’s musical world until nothing else is worth commenting on: and seemingly without effort, the group makes even the most hard-hearted listener appreciate anew the simple, continually attractive fuel of indie-pop. You may not care about the old folks, but you should care about Peter Bjorn and John.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/peter-bjorn-and-john-writers-block/