Peter, Bjorn and John
“I feel it. There’s something in the air. I feel it. I feel it. There’s something in the air.”
Peter, Bjorn and John’s fifth full-length Living Thing begins with an eye roll-inducing cliché, albeit a completely fitting one. Since the Swedish trio burst onto the American scene in 2006, overtaking pop-minding souls with quirky, whistle-hooked single “Young Folks”, Peter Moren, Bjorn Yttling and John Eriksson have been “feeling it” pretty strong.
First, “Young Folks” became a mainstream radio hit. Then, some other stuff happened — TV appearances, FIFA ‘08, American Eagle commercials. And suddenly Kanye West was repping PB+J on his blog like they were Jadakiss or something (although it’s worth noting that the Swedes are probably partly responsible for the broadening of palette that eventually helped West create 808s and Heartbreak).
Upon listening to Living Thing it’s easy to tell that PB+J have not let the success of “Young Folks” — and the album from which it was culled, Writer’s Block — go to their heads. Living Thing is about as far away from a lazy retread as any follow-up to a megahit record could be. Unfortunately, the album is so far out there that it doesn’t come close to engendering the kind of charm and goodwill that made PB+J such a refreshing and enjoyable listen a couple of years back.
The letdown is most immediately apparent in the lack of sonic texture on the album. With a few notable exceptions, Living Thing plays out like a series of half-realized studio experiments.
Opener “The Feeling” is a non-starter. Its droning chorus falls so flat that it begs for the skip button. “Just the Past” advances at an acceptable head-bobbing tempo but gets bogged down in the same dank chorus muck. Elsewhere, the album’s title track comes off like Velvet Underground minus the drugs (no junk, no soul). And “4 Out of 5″ employs some pretty dubious vocal percussion. PB+J simply aren’t able to make studio minimalism work with consistency here. The attempt is noble, but it’s no Spoon.
Just like “Young Folks”, “Amsterdam”, “Let’s Call It Off” and most of the other great tracks on Writer’s Block, Living Thing works best when its creators cram as much low-profile instrumentation into a song as possible, slap a sweet pop hook on it and give it a beat.
With its kid-fueled sample and wobbly stomp, “Nothing To Worry About” is a total banger. It’s almost disorienting in its verve, coming off exactly how I expected Peter, Bjorn and John’s next step might sound after listening to Writer’s Block. Likewise, “It Don’t Move Me” moves with force, featuring the catchiest hook on the album. “Blue Period Picasso” is an example of pop minimalism done right. “Lay It Down” has a certain — and welcome — “Tainted Love” feel to it, as well as a few goofy tough-guy lyrics that serve as the album’s best glimpse into the whimsy and tongue-in-cheekiness that not too long ago defined this band. But there just aren’t enough bright spots on Living Thing to sustain the lapses in pacing and tone. It’s like you get the wind knocked out of you every third track or so.
Which is a shame, because it’s obvious that Peter, Bjorn and John are making a conscious effort to keep things fresh and interesting. After Writer’s Block exploded, the band made a few unexpected moves. Peter Moren put out a solo album of bedroom folk. The group dropped a random, mostly instrumental surf rock LP. They released a pair of idiosyncratic videos to accompany early tracks from Living Thing. They set their minds on sidestepping expectations for their next musical venture.
But in doing so, Peter, Bjorn and John also sidestepped a formula that gave us some of the most adorable, wistful and best-feeling pop of the decade. I, for one, would like to “feel it” again. (Almost Gold, 2009)
By Blake Jackson