Peter Bjorn and John
2 out of 5 stars
Writing a hit song can be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing comes in the form of paychecks from advertisers dying to insert a memorable melody into their commercial. The curse comes in the form of snobbish criticism from holier-than-thou purists declaring the band guilty of treason for selling out.
Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks” is the archetype for this kind of song. It gave the world 2006’s most whistlable line, and the band received fat paychecks from AT&T and Budweiser as a result.
Instead of succumbing to the allure of only writing toe-tapping, juvenile love songs, PB&J found it necessary to redefine their sound — an admirable move for a band attempting to maintain self-respect and dignity.
But on Living Thing, PB&J opt for an unnecessarily dingy sound, resulting in a collection of unappealing faux-dance tracks. The excessive use of migraine-inducing synthesizers and disjointed rhythms prevents most songs from qualifying for any nightclub’s playlist.
Opening track “The Feeling” tries desperately to be ironic with self-consciously dysfunctional instrumentation and lyrics like “I feel it / Can you feel it / There is something in the air.” But the absence of a discernible melody renders the song an unfortunate yet appropriate selection to commence an album that follows its lead. The relentless use of a disagreeable drum machine grows increasingly irritating and tiresome throughout the record.
“Nothing to Worry About” is the lone track whose danceable beats actually succeed. Substituting the gloomy mood for a carefree chorus creates an impeccable sing-along that flirts with the stickiness of “Young Folks.” PB&J sounds refreshingly natural in this comfort zone.
Peter Bjorn and John look to their inner Vampire Weekend on the title track. An afro-pop melody is backed with repeating baritone vocals over which lead singer Peter Moren impolitely injects his falsetto whine. The ominous yet playful guitar line is not enough to rescue the track from its vocal debauchery.
Contrasting “Living Thing,” “Last Nights” tones down the pipes almost to the point of nonexistence. The jumble of randomly distorted drum hits sounds like Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” if it were played in an uninspired alternate universe where monotonous synth chords and vapid vocals were the musical norm.
Complementing the record’s dreary tone and bleak subject matter, “Blue Period Picasso” touches on the theme of love lost in a world of gloom by referencing the well-known stretch of time in Picasso’s career where various shades of the same hue created works of misunderstood melancholy. The song is nearly charming, but ultimately too predictable. Lyrics like “Trying to figure out / how to get down / because this solitude is bringing me down” are unsurprising and contrived.
Everyone knows how to whistle the opening line to “Young Folks,” but many people fail to realize the infectious track was part of an excellent debut album of unpretentious and clean songs. Living Thing, on the other hand, feels sloppy and manufactured. Attempts at experimentation are reduced by the album’s constant clap-heavy drum machine beats, which suffocate Peter Bjorn and John’s attempt to exhibit their mettle. By trying to distance themselves from the dreaded indie-pop genre, PB&J end up neglecting their previous record’s more listenable sound.