You might have heard of Peter Bjorn and John.
They 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 of “Hey, shut the f**k up boy, you’re starting to piss me off” 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. “I Want You!” is quite possibly one of the loveliest things they have ever done, while the title track boldly ramraids Paul Simon’s back catalogue to come up with a song which can proudly stand stand shoulder to shoulder with anything the great man has done, so instantly immortal and addictive is it.
And then, of course, there are the brilliant surprises that you weren’t expecting. “The Feeling” is the grand entrance to the album, and as far as opening tracks go, it’s one hell of a statement of intent – with drums crashing in like waves on a beach, heavy distortion vibrating and, of course, shards of delicate beauty poking through the carefully controlled chaos. “Just the Past” is a pumped-up, rough around the edges, would be disco gem, and “I’m Losing My Mind” is by turns angular and heart-swelling. And then there is the Kanye West-approved, official first single, “Nothing to Worry About”, a glorious rollercoaster ride of lolloping beats and children’s choirs, and the furthest thing from “Young Folks” you could possibly find.
Not that Peter Bjorn and John think that way. They are too busy moving forward, like a shark, experimenting, playing with new things, pushing the envelope and having a good time. One of the songs on their new album is called “Blue Period Picasso”, in reference to the painter’s sombre, monochromatic years in which he painted only in cold shades of blue and green. It is a delicious red-herring, for “Living Thing” is anything but – it pulses with life, it is bursting at the seams with energy and vitality, and shot through with warmth and excitement and wonder. So, in a strange, perverse way, maybe they’re not so different from the Peter, Bjorn and John you’ve always known after all…
1) The Feeling
2) It Don’t Move Me
3) Just the Past
4) Nothing to Worry About
5) I’m Losing My Mind
6) Living Thing
7) I Want You!
8) Lay It Down
9) Stay This Way
10) Blue Period Picasso
11) 4 Out Of 5
12) Last Night