Peter Bjorn and John

Living Thing

(Almost Gold; 2009)

By Alan Baban & Calum Marsh | 10 April 2009

These three just stamped the sand into their baby. All this time they could have been making us an offering. The reason Falling Out (2005) stands up is ‘cos they were so ensconced in their station as to not really consider how else one might approach a pop song were it not for “pop music” and the bass-guitar-drum glut that gave us any number of bragging summer melodies. This band once wrote some solid tunes. Living Thing is just barely interesting because of the basic question it poses, which: who is Elton John without his piano polish? Or: how far can one go with a pip of melody and a mind to destroy? Does stooping to some real tiara-level hissyfitting trash make for a good album? Over the course of these twelve tracks, Peter Bjorn and John investigate.

Because, um, this is that album; this is the “hissyfitting trash.” Take it as the cock-crow of the PBJ back-catalogue. Or, as if they’ve reimagined their wide green world of fuzzy happiness as Satan’s butt and twisted what charm their sound had ‘til it came to be this big tormenting thing. Then proceeded to stick said thing into the ears of the world.

Everything’s reverb-shot to hell. The songs themselves are broad, indifferent things, no relation to the Thing that is this album. Foregoing the tightness that defined their hits, Peter, Bjorn, and John, together in a small room, wax big on cultivating atmosphere. What this functionally means is playing less, playing bored, and sounding so xanax’d they need to be pigeon-pinched. Plus that reverb. Literally the image that comes to mind every time one hits play to resume combat with this record is of three bored musicians scratching their buttocks and maybe chuckling at the idea of the flatus-whistle they just recorded. Yes, Living Thing is pretty funny (and stupid). And still it manages to show a disdain for the listener. Dunno what to do other than to make a funny ourselves. So, um: 35%. We will not be praising the genius of their cheek.

Last year’s Writer’s Block (2006) follow-up Seaside Rock was at least as lousy as Living Thing, but that record felt lousy in a “successful-pop-band’s-slapdash-holdover-that-shouldn’t-really-be-considered-canonical” sort of way, which is to say that it was somehow more excusable. As we so loved Writer’s Block—a delightful pop gem, to be sure!—that we were willing to let this flop go, willing to sweep it under their garish Swedish rug of a discography. We disliked but forgave; we were confused but accepting. Mostly confused.

And thus Living Thing is little more than a spectacular “fuck you” from the dandies, a wine-stained and nearly-illegible postcard from the tropical resort of their mainstream success. When the boys chant “Hey, shut the fuck up / You’ve already had enough,” guess what: they’re singing it to you. There’s a distinct feeling that the band is making fun of its audience, but it’s, like, what did we do to deserve it? Is it because we didn’t take them seriously enough? Is it because my Dad liked “that song with the whistling” (his words)?

We don’t know how many midnights they spent amassing this material, or what drugs they were on, or who they’ve been screwing, but one listen is enough to understand that this is a band effectively stopped in the front yard of its own latent success. Is it bad to think that a good pop band—or at least this pop band—should stick to what works? Living Thing is successful only in that it doesn’t tread; these songs come walking thin-leaved, confident, and un-apparitioned. They even come with banana skins so you know when to laugh, when to be lost for words, and when to click delete. This is a record that would perhaps gain nothing from a laugh-track, its badness being so vivid that one can’t help but feel sort of embarrassed for all this nakedness. Tingly.

Still, what does this nakedness reveal? Their cocks, for sure. Peter’s still on his micro-penis kick: inflecting little nothings as if they were pithy last deductions; making damn sure every time that his voice is riding high in the mix, disdainful of its own shadow and the scuttering instruments left to wake up to god-knows-what rhythm; making sure it’s slow. Bjorn and John are just, like, watching.

Woulda been bad enough had PBJ up and phoned it in from start to finish, because it’s easier to call the whole thing tepid and half-baked and move right on. Instead, these guys know better than to alienate the paying customer, which is why you get the sure-fire pop hit “Nothing To Worry About”—don’t employ a child choir and a beat that hot unless you’re out to sell records en masse. “Nothing To Worry About” should secure a further few years of modest fame and fortune for three guys who refuse to deliver on the promise of whatever saccharine singles they’re perennially squeezing out, but just imagine the look on the faces of new fans who pick this up on the strength of that lead. Take that, new fans.