[29 April 2008]
The compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
Considering that his band just achieved the sort of breakthrough success that most indie rock bands only dream of—charting a top 20 single in the UK, playing some of the world’s largest festivals, and earning the praise of critics the world over—you would think that Peter Morén, the Peter in Peter, Bjorn and John, would want to celebrate. So, it’s somewhat surprising that, nearly two years after the release of the excellent Writer’s Block, Morén has re-emerged with The Last Tycoon, a collection of somber, folky tunes that are more coffee house than Coachella. What’s more, the album is named after and loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon, one of the great unfinished works of 20th century American literature. The novel chronicles the life of aging Hollywood magnate Monroe Stahr, for whom personal fulfillment proves elusive, even as he finds himself at the pinnacle of professional success. Either Morén has a bizarre sense of humor, or things aren’t quite as good at the top as we might assume.
Artistic motivations aside, Morén’s decision to release a solo LP isn’t entirely without precedent. The last few years have seen frontmen from other indie pop bands with mainstream appeal—most notably Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy—easily establish themselves as solo artists. So after three albums and nearly a decade with Bjorn and John, it’s hard to argue that Morén hasn’t also earned his chance to step into the solo spotlight. However, as the songwriting on The Last Tycoon illustrates, just because Morén can release a solo LP doesn’t mean that he should. While Meloy’s theatrical phrasings and Gibbard’s grammatically perfect vignettes are distinctive enough to stand alone, Morén’s stripped-down tunes don’t hold the same appeal as his full band work. What we’re left with is an intimate collection of folk songs that feel half-baked, with only occasional hints at the catchiness for which PB&J is known.
Being that The Last Tycoon is, ostensibly, a loose concept album based on a book about the movies, it’s fitting that Morén opens up the record with “Reel Too Real”, a meditation on the relationship between image and perception. “You seem to be terrified / ‘Cause you don’t know what to make out of someone / Like me”, Morén sings at the outset over a fingerpicked guitar line, sounding a bit like Paul McCartney with a head cold. Soon, an understated synth line and a steady clop of handclaps join the procession, keeping the song moving at a relaxed clip. That all changes at just past the two-minute mark, however, when an echoing bell hit signals a brief change of tempo. “Who wants to be real? / Completely”, Morén asks. “Nobody I know”.
“Missing Link” follows a similar trajectory, with Morén abstractly musing about “cascades of pictures” while tickling the higher registers of his guitar. While the song is pleasant enough at the outset, Morén soon overloads the fragile melody with cheesy strings, cymbal hits and even a musical saw. And it certainly doesn’t help that the chorus finds him repeating, “I think I’ve found the missing link / The missing link” ad nauseam.
Luckily, our protagonist fares a bit better during the record’s second half. “This Is What I Came For” pairs Morén’s folky fingerpicking with a wordy tale about “The spoiled white kid with clenched white teeth”. Meanwhile, “My Match” opens with the welcome sound of a distorted guitar and employs hazy production throughout to accent the song’s deliberate pace.
You might say that the album’s lead single, “Social Competence”, is a bit misleading, as it’s the only song on Tycoon that evokes PB&J to satisfactory effect. Anchored by a bold piano line with percussion and guitar layered generously on top, the song hits its stride on the chorus, a bubbly overload of harpsichord and handclaps. Still, “Social Competence” wouldn’t hold its own if pitted against the stacked tracklist of Writer’s Block; at best, it could serve as an also-ran B-side.
“I Don’t Gaze at the Sky for Long”, the album’s final track, is a study in extremes: while it finds Morén committing the album’s greatest misstep, it also brings him tantalizingly close to penning the sort of timeless folk pop tune that he’s obviously aiming for. Opening with a simple guitar line reminiscent of Freewheelin’-era Dylan, the song wastes no time in cutting to the unabashed romanticism. “What would I do / Did I not have / Your eyes to gaze on / ‘Cause I don’t gaze at the sky for long”, Morén sings, leading into a melodic lift at the end of the verse, “Thank you, thank you, thank you”. The lyrics are, admittedly, pretty tacky, but Morén manages to sell the lines with the sort of straightfaced, earnest delivery that a love song requires, sounding a bit like a Swedish Cat Stevens. Just past the two-minute mark, however, he slows the song down to half time and starts plucking the strings more gently. Set against this spare backdrop, he stretches out phrases like “From here to eternity” in a falsetto, pushing his pipes past their limit. Ultimately, his voice cracks under the strain, making the album’s cloying finale an even more painful listen than it needs to be.
One of the great ironies of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life is that the novel that could have been his greatest artistic triumph was borne out of a period of professional failure. As he worked to detail Stahr’s meteoric rise to the top in The Love of the Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald himself was at rock bottom, having been fired from his job as an MGM screenwriter after only a year. He would spend the last two years of his life working as a Hollywood freelancer, resuming work on Tycoon only when time allowed. At the age of 44, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack, having finished only 17 of the projected 30 episodes that would have made up what many suggest could have been his masterwork. As both The Love of the Last Tycoon and Peter Morén’s The Last Tycoon illustrate, sometimes you need to just stick to what you do best.