In the past couple of years, Peter Bjorn and John owned indie pop. This began, of course, with “Young Folks,” and subsequently their outstanding album Writer’s Block, which found this once-humble Swedish trio becoming a household name. But that didn’t keep the group’s individual members from staying busy with other projects. Peter Morén released a solo album, while Björn Yttling produced albums by The Shout Out Louds and Lykke Li. To follow-up their smash album, however, they did the weird, counterintuitive thing by releasing an instrumental album, 2008’s Seaside Rock.
Like Beck and his non-Geffen output in the mid-90s, Seaside Rock, it can be argued, wasn’t really a true follow-up. An interlude, a companion piece, just an unrelated collection of music—whatever you want to call it, it was an unexpected turn of events from a band that made a name for themselves by writing such magnificent pop tunes. Which isn’t to say it’s not lovely, it’s just not really a pop album. That honor is reserved for Living Thing, the true follow-up to Writer’s Block. It’s a pop album, one with beats, vocals and hooks. But it’s also very, very bizarre. In fact, this almost sounds like an entirely different band.
The differences between PBJ circa 2006 and the group’s current sound are startling, to say the least. “The Feeling,” Living Thing‘s leadoff track, is a minimal, electronic-based track with popping beats and Laurie Anderson-like robo ambience. There are no rich, textured guitars, just cold, repetitive beats and curious synth effects. Before one truly gets the sense of what’s going on, Peter Bjorn and John transition into “It Don’t Move Me,” a song with a slightly familiar sound, being equal parts “Young Folks” and Lykke Li’s “I’m Good, I’m Gone.” Its echoing beats and reverb-laden piano darken its otherwise bright, synth-driven sound, adding some deep contrast to a wonderful pop song. “Nothing to Worry About” finds the band striking another strange path with a children’s choir, but “Just The Past,” driven by a slower tempo and some twinkles of delay treated post-punk piano find the band sounding almost like mid-’80s U2, which is certainly a good thing.
On Living Thing, there are as many impeccably crafted pop gems as there are baffling sonic experiments. While this is generally a good thing in terms of artistic growth, for Peter Bjorn and John, the growing pains are all too palpable. “I’m Losing My Mind,” much like opener “The Feeling,” opts for a minimal approach, with lots of open space and a complete absence of bass. While it’s a noble effort, it doesn’t make for a very engaging listen. The title track almost sounds like the band’s attempt at a Young Marble Giants track, which actually fares much better in its simple, stripped-down structure. The group gets back into a groove with “I Want You!”, a pretty pop song that’s playful and spacious, and made all the more charming with John Eriksson’s slightly awkward vocals. “Lay It Down” could have been a much better song, but the irritating chant of “hey, shut the fuck up boy” is a blemish on an otherwise salvageable track.
Ultimately, Peter Bjorn and John are at their best when sticking to a strong melodic foundation. “Stay This Way” is a lovely ballad with some doo-wop backing vocals and fingersnaps that are sure to make any listener grin. And “Last Night” lays on some echoing synth over a sensual ambient melody that’s simultaneously reminiscent of Kraftwerk and The Police. There’s enough great material on Living Thing to reassure listeners that Peter Bjorn and John are still the brilliant popsmiths we came to know on Writer’s Block. There’s also a lot of material on Living Thing that, quite frankly, doesn’t live up to their potential. Perhaps it’s something they had to get out of their system, perhaps they just got bored of writing melodically bright and life-affirming music. Either way, it’s hard to hear this as anything but a disappointment.
Video: “Nothing To Worry About”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.