[31 March 2009]
It’s different from Writer’s Block, but then you might not remember how fuzzy and buffered—how slightly weird—Writer’s Block was. Remember the opening: “I laugh more often now, I cry more often now / I am more me”. Remember “Amsterdam”, all smoke and canals and perpetual momentum. Remember the sweet, nostalgic “Paris 2004” and those surprisingly long, seven-minute songs that seemed effortless. This group can write a pop song, but often chooses to explore texture, something more incoherent and more like real life, instead.
Of course, you may not remember any of these songs, or even heard much about Peter Bjorn and John. The Swedish indie trio, now in its tenth year, only really became internationally known a few years ago, when its last album spat out a massive and uncharacteristically straightforward hit (“Young Folks”). Since then, Kanye West has sampled them for his mixtape, and even dropped the premiere of their new single on his blog. The intervening years saw a humble, ambience-driven instrumental album (Seaside Rock) but have otherwise been relatively quiet for the band.
Even in this creative context, Living Thing is different. The album has a sparse, echoey feel that’s completely of itself, completely unified, and quite different from the group’s previous work. And in this, Peter Bjorn and John may have hit on a new type of pop music. Living Thing may grow to become known as Peter Bjorn and John’s pirate album, a rattling, jangly near-hour of music that’s completely in step with itself.
That the album plays so unified is probably due to Bjorn Yttling’s confident production, which has become much more sought-after post-“Young Folks” and a subsequent series of high-profile collaborations including Lykke Li’s Youth Novels. The best production makes you stop and think, “I’ve never heard something like that before”, and Living Thing does this. Is it a uniformly pretty sound? No. It rattles and shakes, exposing the songs’ mechanics and weaknesses. But the percussion, battling against itself in complex cross-rhythms, often sounds innovative and unexpected. This provides one of the only strong links to the group’s previous output; the new songs replicate a fascination with the drums’ unexplored impact.
In this way, Living Thing can be considered in the same breath as dance acts like the Knife and art-pop groups like Prinzhorn Dance School. Whereas those acts are purer examinations of percussion and its effect, though, Peter Bjorn and John are interested in the extension of pop music through sly innovation. From dance music, Peter Bjorn and John take a production aesthetic and a comfort with slowly drawn repetitions. From pop they take their choruses and melodies. And they tie it all together with a sensibility that’s more complex than they’re given credit for.
Peter Bjorn and John are still taking pop melodies and tropes with a knowing wink. Yttling cues up the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer”, a joyful tribute, on “Lay It Down”. And there’s more than a hint of Graceland over Living Thing, but it’s more subtly incorporated than another indie group we’ve heard a lot of recently (er, Vampire Weekend). Here, it’s the sense of continuous churning percussion, best heard in the flickering guitar and slap-bass of the title track.
Which is all great, and many facets of an argument to take the group seriously, but it doesn’t acknowledge that at least two songs on here are going to be huge pop hits. Not “Young Folks” huge, perhaps, but big enough to be a satisfying followup. You may have heard them. The first is “Nothing to Worry About”, the second is “Lay It Down”. Worth a search-to-download specifically, “Nothing to Worry About” springs out of Justice or Gorillaz’ or I’m From Barcelona’s child-chorus exuberance, but outside of that chorus (to which you will be singing along) the timbre’s remarkably sparse—little more than vocal line plus percussion. “Lay It Down” uses a similar construction, similar chorus of high-pitched voices, but—yes—is raised to a new level by that refrain, both deliciously profane and catchy in the right combination.
There’s something going on with the tonalities on Living Thing, too, that screws with the listener. From the opening, it’s the unpitched “d” sound of the modified “doo doo” bassline wobble, and even though “I feel it / Can you feel it?” is Pop 101, the song has an unsteady, rattling feeling, as if it’s about to fall apart. Things aren’t like this everywhere—the songs you’ll initially like best are as forthright as, say, a Vampire Weekend demo. But you can tell the group’s more interested in the strands of stray guitar or complex, intersecting electronics that jitter in the background than in the melodies, which occasionally feel sketched or even abandoned half-formed. Peter Bjorn and John have always had this odd relationship with melody, anyway. “I Want You!” sounds like it’s trying too hard to stuff too many words/feelings into the verse, in an awkward ascending motif, until Yttling slides into the chorus with the revelatory “I can’t help it, I want you!”
Though there’s much that clatters and snaps on Living Thing, in its quiet moments Peter Bjorn and John return to a momentary wistful intimacy. “Just the Past”, to take a final example, has a Jens Lekman-esque romanticism, though it soon twists away from the toy piano of the opening to a soft-focus chorus and slapped percussion. That Peter Bjorn and John’s promise of straightforward songwriting is continually subverted is what makes this group interesting, and why we should continue to both enjoy their singles without further thought and invest the time in the subtler rewards of the rest of their work.