Peter Bjorn and John’s Writer’s Block may have inadvertently previewed what was to come for this band; unlike most one hit wonders, the Swedish trio had released three albums with a number of fantastic tracks; “Young Folks” just happened to catch a wave of support that far surpassed anything else they had ever done — for random circumstances as much as its own brilliance. Now, with “Young Folks” appearing every week on Gossip Girl it’s impossible to ignore it when talking about Peter Bjorn & John, as it probably will always be. (How much do you think Nada Surf would give up to have one interview that didn’t mention “Popular?”)
Combine the runaway hit status of their previous album’s lead single with the fact that PB & J’s latest album, Living Thing, comes fresh off the Animal Collective’s masterstroke Merriweather Post Pavilion, a band Peter Bjorn & John’s entire career better resembles in terms of freaky, experimental eclecticism that still qualifies as pop, and you’ve got an almost impossible situation for Living Thing to make a dent. Unlike Merriweath Post Pavilion, Living Thing could never be confused as a generation-defining or even career-defining album. Nonetheless, it remains a damn good work of indie pop that manages to avoid clichés by constantly mixing up the tone. It’s not as good as Writer’s Block, and there’s no track that will match “Young Folks’” success, but there are moment that make you wanna dance, make you wanna scream at the band, and, like Portishead’s Third, one last year’s best albums, moments that make you go “did I really just hear that?”
PB & J do their best to deprogram your brain of expectations with opener “The Feeling” a trick track in terms of its use of percussion, but a trick that works. It may not batter the living daylights out of your eardrums like Portishead did with “Machine Gun” last year, but Peter Bjorn & John probably learned from them (or maybe 24) that playing music based solely on percussion can draw out unusual emotions and behaviors. Maybe the deprogramming was necessary, because the second track “It Don’t Move Me” is the closest sounding to “Young Folks” on the album, but is distinctive enough to qualify as a highlight of its own.
The first single of the album “Nothing to Worry About” is also a highlight, though its significance may be accidental. Living Thing finished recording last year almost around the exact time Lehman Brothers collapsed, so while the housing bubble had burst, its impact on the financial market was probably not fully felt by the time Peter Bjorn & John wrote “Nothing to Worry About”’s chant “Doing this thing this type of thing / Put a little money in this time of thing / I got nothing to worry about.” Years of hip-hop songs opening with high-pitched singing and a yard-stomping opening refrain have caused us to forget it’s as much a pop convention as a hip-hop one. The song doesn’t have the kind of transcendence of a “Hard Knock Life,” or “Gold Digger,” but the fact that the chorus vocals for this song are provided by kids (including the School of Rock kids) who will be screwed over most by this economy means this song is as much of an accidentally poignant song as “B.O.B.,” a song sure to make any song of the decade list for the same kind of political significance.
For me, however, the real highlight on the album is the title track, which closes the albums mystifying first half for a mostly forgettable second. If you’re one of those indie types who considers Animal Collective gods but can’t bring yourself to like Vampire Weekend, “Living Thing is the best kind of medicine you can get, as it is as similar to “Lion in a Coma” as it is to “A-Punk.” White guys taking African and Aboriginal rhythms is nothing new, and at the very least, Peter Bjorn and John should be commended for creating a track that ranks with this year’s best without the use of samples.
The only other notable track is the one that will polarize and anger audiences the most, “Lay It Down,” a half-catchy song that annoys just about everyone with it’s opening lyric “Hey, shut the fuck up boy / you are starting to piss me off” the casual obscenity of the opener will blind many to the fact that the rest of the song is castigating a manipulative indie boy for using and degrading a vulnerable female, a topic you rarely see in music, but one we should be hearing more about.
Ultimately, it seems that Living Thing’s greatest sin is that it is not Merriweather Post Pavilion, or for that matter, Pet Sounds. It seems sad to think that bands today are held back from getting the recognition they deserve unless they release a masterpiece, but with the sheer flood of bands on the scene, that’s to be expected. In today’s music economy there are only two real ways to get major attention: release one of the best albums of the year, or heavily market an album like it’s the best album ever. Peter Bjorn and John haven’t done either with Living Thing, and while that may lose them some fans, it does win them some respect in my eyes.