In the confusion of falling for someone there is an almost palpable suspension of the past—one is released from his or her history. We fall in love in a vacuum, when we truly allow ourselves to fall, and while the immediate surroundings and particular events may be engraved into our memories forever, and, in fact, seem exceedingly real and vivid, what has come before can appear, however momentarily, fictional. Then, of course, it comes back in a rush, the historical you eclipsing the temporarily-undefined-by-passion you. The initial sense of euphoria is diluted by the impending necessity of self-revealing, of coming clean. In short, the messy business of who we have been colliding with who we are.
Obviously, it is not only relationships which draw us into such jarring recognitions. On a perfectly ordinary day, any number of things occur which can trigger the sudden comprehension of drastic changes undergone in the past months or years. One such event, the one I am concerned with here, is coming into contact with an album full of songs which evoke the past, the present, and the people inhabited in between.
By no means was this my initial take on Writer’s Block, the third album by the comma-free Stockholm trio Peter Bjorn and John (Peter Morén, Björn Yttling and John Eriksson). Rather, I think I felt the same sensation as a lot of other people when they heard the record’s first single “Young Folks” for the first time, namely, intoxication. From its beginning—a fanciful clatter of drums, maraca shaking, bongos, woozy bass, and, most prominently, whistling—an irresistible spell is cast. The song, a duet with The Concretes’ Victoria Bergsman, is both a triumph of subtlety and fantastically danceable. Its subject matter is the aforementioned vertigo inherent in a new relationship, the pleasurable dizziness of its initial emotional magnitude. The dilemma is crystallized in the opening lines:
“If I told you things I did before
Told you how I used to be
Would you go home with someone like me?
If you knew my story word for word
Had all of my history
Would you go home with someone like me?”
Now, I have listened to this song an ungodly amount of times and what continues to fascinate me is the way the import of the lyrics matches up with the feeling aroused by the music. The verses, largely an affair of bass, drums and perfectly-wearied vocals, are given a slightly unnerving atmosphere by the melodic keyboard drones which rise slowly into the mix. And then, just as beguiling, the manic surge of the chorus, fluttering in the bones, capped by the assertion of both vocalists: “All we care about is talking, talking only me and you.” “Young Folks” is a portrait of the kind of beginning that we will again and again experience though we know it leads, often as not, to disaster rather than paradise.
“Objects of Affection,” with its walls of guitar noise and pummel of drums, is both an example and observation of the way small and random events lead us into intense rumination. Hearing a song that you used to listen to can be a gateway into questions like, “Was I more alive then than I am now?” Morén’s answer, here, is a definitive no. The song is about getting older as well, about the attempt to live more deeply as one ages, that proposition so often deemed impossible by “those who know.” Peter Bjorn and John are still making idiosyncratic pop in the same vein as their last album Falling Out, but the edges have grown sharper and everything is tighter, the lyrics, the instrumentation, everything; all the parts are in the right places, complementing each other and deepening the whole. A major reason for this appears to be the production of Yttling, which not only succeeds in bringing out the essential strength of the songs, but manages to enhance it.
Two excellent examples of this are “Up Against the Wall” and “Chills,” at once skeletal and endowed with warmth by delicately rendered passages. The former is hypnotizing, clocking in at over seven disarmingly effortless minutes. Dressed in the hazy gauze of daydreams, it drifts through the consciousness in unreal shades before slipping away. “Paris 2004” is a travelogue in song—a collection of specific details from a holiday, of events as well as emotions. The chorus consists of the unflaggingly giddy repetition of the lines “I’m all about you, you’re all about me/ We’re all about each other.” The narration in present tense adds to the sense of staring at a snapshot, a moment in the past being captured and made into a song-object, but also being brought back to life, resuscitated within the song’s sweet and buoyant exuberance.
Writer’s Block is a mercurial work of art, one that, while brought forth from a relatively minimal palette, oozes with invention and confidence. Its simplicity belies its patient and thoughtful sculpting. Peter Bjorn and John have made a subtle and seductive album stuffed with songs that readily induce both dancing and meditation, that in their attempt to evoke and make sense of the past, affirm the present moment and the future to come.