A Second Look: Peter Bjorn & John – Living Thing

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Swedish indie crooners Peter Bjorn and John are set to release Gimme Some, on March 29, and the album’s marriage of twee pop and garage rock is sure to please fans who were disappointed by 2009′s Living Thingand have been forced to wait almost five years for the next Writer’s Block. Most will consider Gimme Someto be an improvement over its predecessor; I think it’s a shame.

Not that Gimme Some is particularly bad–it’s not, at all–but Living Thing flopped because it wasn’t what most listeners wanted from a Peter Bjorn and John album. Its jingly first single “Nothing to Worry About” belied an album filled of terse, spare meditations that emphasized mood over melody. Never mind that it also contained some of the best hooks the band’s ever written; without a “Young Folks,” Living Thingwas doomed to fail.

A band’s decision to experiment usually runs the risk of alienating a good portion of its listeners, and that’s what happened to Peter Bjorn and John in 2009. But with their latest release just a week away, I think it’s time to reconsider Living Thing. In fact, let’s pretend it was the band’s first album; what would we say about it?

Immediately, we’d note the desperate, almost primal energy lurking beneath the cool surface sounds of the album. Opener “The Feeling” opens with forceful percussion, emphatic hand-claps, and the skimpiest of synth lines; it song gives off a very tribal vibe, like the band hired a group of musically-inclined cavemen to produce the track. “It Don’t Move Me” sounds just as sparse but veers more toward a bare-bones, bass-heavy beat and the murky sinisterness of a song by the Knife; indeed, lyrics like “Forget photos and letters/All the people that matter/They don’t move me no more” would have sounded right at home on Silent Shout.

Track three is where the sad beauty of Living Thing really begins to take shape. “Just the Past” moves at a slow, insistent gallop, much like the singer’s unrequited overtures toward a romantic, unnamed other. Lines like “You untie me as if I were a shoelace” sound trite on paper, but when they’re backed by ephemeral keyboards and sung to the tune of a heartbreaking melody, these lyrics achieve a poignance only hinted at on previous PB+J releases. Again, this is minimal pop music, but it’s to the band’s credit that they’re patient enough to let these tender songs unfold at their own pace, rather than trying to cram in another hook before embarking upon a forced chorus (a problem that plagues several songs on Gimme Some).

“Stay This Way” is the album’s apex, the moment at which the band’s newfound experimental itch activates a visceral sadness in the listener. It’s a song about growing out of the carefree selfishness of childhood while not wanting to ever grow up, about finding yourself adrift in time, years gone by that you haven’t thought to count: “Things ain’t working out like they’re supposed to, but at least they’re working out,” it begins. The chorus finds the singer pleading, “Why can’t we stay this way?” backed by, yes, whistling—the trademark sound of “Young Folks” turned on its head and given a black eye, lending itself to the sort of defeated pop someone like Trent Reznor would have a field day remixing. The last line, sung acapella, goes, “I just wanna have you here.” We the listeners know in our gut, however, that the object of the singer’s affection doesn’t want to “stay this way.” The singer has made a hopeless request.

All this melancholy would be a little too much for a pop album recorded by lesser talents, but Peter Bjorn and John seem to have Swedish twee pop ingrained into their DNA; even in the album’s bleakest moments, flashes of melody and even humor are to be found, like saplings peeking out through cracks in abandoned sidewalks. “Lay It Down” rides a rollicking piano with all the heroism the album’s dejected narrator can muster: “Hey, shut the fuck up boy/You are starting to piss me off/Take your hands off that girl/You have already had enough,” goes the chorus. But the narrator’s chivalry is ineffectual, and he concedes to his aggressor that “You’re just gonna let her down,” as though there were nothing he could do to change that.

“Blue Period Picasso,” meanwhile, is absolutely gorgeous acoustic pop-rock that arises from the ashes of a sparse, jarring intro; the lyrics’ central metaphor compares the singer’s ennui with the loneliness of a second-tier Picasso painting (“I’m a bit too early, I’m seen as development”) that’s “stuck on a wall in the middle of a hall in Barcelona. The analogy is more charming than labored, and when the singer encourages the object of his affection to “Hold me close unto your breast/Run down the stairs out in open air/Away from the ladies, the Japanese tourists,” the song shines with the promise of hope faintly shining through a dense fog of hopelessness.

“4 Out Of 5″ is lumbering, heavy, fitting the description that Michael Jackson gives to one of his backing band members in This Is It during rehearsals for “The Way You Make Me Feel”: “Like you’re dragging yourself out of bed.” And closer “Last Night” is a piano-driven ballad from space that burns slowly over the course of its four minute runtime, an fittingly echoing and haunted finale to an echoing and haunted album.

Shortly after Living Thing dropped, DJ/producer Mick Boogie put together a mixtape called Re-Living Thing that recast each of the original album’s tracks in a grittier hip-hop context. The results are sublime, not just because of the mixtape’s producers’ sampling prowess (though they definitely choose the best moments of each PB+J track to sample) but also because the mixtape makes more apparent the original album’s charms, hooks, and memorability that so many listeners seemed to found overlook. That a diverse group of rappers found rhythmic and conceptual inspiration in Living Thing, however, should come as no to surprise to those of us who appreciated Peter Bjorn and John’s attempts to play with the beats and instrumentation we often take for granted in Swedish pop. And therein lies the true magic of Living Thing; cut away the cobwebs and you’ll encounter a hushed musical ecosystem that sounds richer and fuller with each subsequent listen.

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