CD Review of Living Thing by Peter Bjorn and John
Peter Bjorn and John: Living Thing
Recommended if you like
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Startime International
Peter Bjorn and John:
Living Thing

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


fter earning a surprise, blog-fueled hit with "Young Folks" (otherwise known as "that goddamn whistling song"), from their third album, 2006’s Writer’s Block, Swedish pop trio Peter Bjorn and John could have been forgiven if they’d chickened out with their follow-up – but the release of 2008’s mostly instrumental Seaside Rock made it clear that they’re less concerned with popularity than they are with following their collective muse, and pretty much ruled out a direct sequel to Writer’s Block – and on that front, Living Thing doesn’t disappoint. Where PB&J previously hewed fairly close to the standard electro-acoustic indie-pop template, their fifth outing is more of a 12-track tour through the ‘80s.

Peter Bjorn and John

Opening track "The Feeling" gets things started off at the turn of the decade, wedding dispassionate, Gary Numan-esque vocals to handclaps and vintage synth sounds, and much of the album uses the same DNA – there’s no shortage of stomping, machine-made dance beats, emotionless singing, synths, or (most importantly) easily digestible, instantly memorable choruses. A pair of tracks, "It Don’t Move Me" and "I’m Losing My Mind," even offer passable impressions of Depeche Mode at their least guitar-friendly, and on songs such as "4 out of 5" and album closer "Last Night," the band ventures into mechanical dirge territory, pouring icy washes of sound over clipped, purse-lipped melodies.

Fortunately, Peter Bjorn and John are interested in more than New Wave and old synths, and Living Thing has more to offer than warmed-over New Order. In fact, in places, it’s pretty damn frisky: leadoff single "Lay It Down" is a bouncy fight track, a sort of 21st-century rumble anthem topped off with the unbeatable refrain, "Hey, shut the fuck up, boy / You’re starting to piss me off." Elsewhere, "Nothing to Worry About" tacks a cheerleading beat onto a wall of rubbery synths, handclaps, and a thin layer of fuzzed-out vocals, and the title track offers a glimpse of what it might have been like if Squeeze had attempted Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints, tossing a pogo guitar against clockwork drums and a sunny melody; similarly, "I Want You!" couples the faint township vibe of its arrangement with a whirring loop, acres of reverb, and a nifty, cascading guitar riff.

It isn’t an album short on highlights, and Living Things can be fun – albeit frequently in a "guess where you’ve heard this before" sort of way – but a lot of the songs aren’t particularly memorable in their own right. "Nothing to Worry About," "Lay It Down," "I Want You!" and the title track are all obvious winners, but beyond that, Living’s charms are slow to reveal themselves. More problematically, Peter Bjorn and John offer little in the way of real human heat to reach the listener through all those waves of synthetic sound, and as a result, the whole thing starts to feel annoyingly tongue-in-cheek after a while – as though the band was aiming to make a pastiche rather than a statement. If that’s truly the case, then they did exactly what they set out to do, but it certainly doesn’t make for solidly compelling listening.

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