Two years on from their last album, 2006's Writer's Block (if you don't count last year's download only oddity, Seasisde Rock), Stockholm's premier existential indie pop trio return with more songs about life, love, the universe and early 20th century art. While they still have a distinctly Scandinavian slant on matters of the heart their wistful, 'classic' pop sound has now been transformed into something more strange. Living Thing is sure enough clever, but it may not be as lovable as you'd expect and it's certainly a long way from the ubiquitous Young Folks.
Much like a lot of 'modern' popular music, much on offer here is in thrall to the 80s. There are the New Wave clanking, gated drums and humming OMD-style synths on tracks like the aptly-named Just The Past or Stay This Way, but there's more... You still get slightly petulant John Lennon-esque vocals by Peter Morén and words that are a million miles away from run of the mill. It's an album in love with wonkiness; determined to inhabit a universe all of its own. And while often the wonkiness pushes them off the rails completely, as on I'm Losing My Mind which sounds like it was more fun to make than listen to, it seems wrong to deny them the kudos for at least caring enough to give us something different.
Yes, they do have a tendency to be a little too wordy. I Want You! leaves you with a headache as it crams in the syllables. And cynics among you may think that after Kanye West's sampling of Young Folks the bonky kids-led chorus of single Nothing To Worry About was constructed just so some major hip hop star would come along and give them the keys to royalty heaven.
Living Thing isn't in any way a failure, it's just a triumph on their own terms alone. The title track manages to hit a niggly township jive groove in the first two seconds that's irresistibly odd. And they may be Swedish but they know how to have a laugh. Blue Period Picasso is a song told from the point of view of a... Blue Period Picasso in a Barcelona gallery. And Lay It Down's chorus of 'Hey shut the f*** up boy, you're starting to piss me off'' at least signifies that they themselves know when they're getting irritating.
Madness or art, you can't help feeling that, if taken to its logical ends, Peter Bjorn and John's particular brand of brainy pop is destined to be increasingly ignored,only to be looked back on as a misunderstood work in ten years time. At this rate of willful own-furrow ploughing they're going to end up as the next Sparks: loved by critics, ignored by the masses and renowned for a hit that's atypical of their work. --Chris Jones
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Peter Bjorn and John are the Swedish trio that released a certain single called “Young Folks” in 2006, the one with the inimitable whistling intro and shuffling drums and the huge chorus which was so clever and tongue in cheek but at the same time so simple, personal and direct and universal that it won over listeners across the world, got covered by the varied likes of Nena and Kanye West, and even showed up on the zeitgeist-defining Gossip Girl
. The accompanying album, Writer’s Block
, was a heart melting collection of 11 perfectly formed pop classics which went on to become an indie hit. What you may not have heard is their more experimental side. As befitting a band comprising a “hardcore fusion” obsessive (John) and jazz-pianist (Bjorn) in their ranks, there has always been a wilder, more playful undertow bubbling away just beneath the shiny pop surface. Just look at Seaside Rock
, their limited edition, low-key 2008 release which was pretty much the polar opposite of Writer’s Block
: mostly instrumental, and filled with beautiful, sparse elegies to their isolated childhoods. Which brings us neatly to Living Thing
, their follow up to Writer’s Block
proper. There was always going to be chatter as to how Peter Bjorn and John would follow up a pop phenomenon. Would they try to replicate their earlier success? Or go out of their way to release a wilfully difficult new album? In actual fact, what they have done is a bit of both – and neither--all at the same time. Bolstered by the band’s production, the first taster of the album, “Lay it Down”, which snuck out onto the blogosphere at the end of 2008, was a delightfully off-kilter riposte, a jaunty flying-V in the faces of people who thought they’d had the band all figured out, with a harsh, treated vocal lifelessly intoning the threatening refrain before abruptly giving way to an anthemic, full-bodied singalong, the sort which will send the masses scurrying to any self-respecting dancefloor on a Saturday night. The rest of the album walks a similar tightrope of melody and mayhem. Living Thing
pulses with life, it is bursting at the seams with energy and vitality, and shot through with warmth and excitement and wonder.