Peter Bjorn and John - Living Thing Review

Ignoring Seaside Rock, their vinyl/digital-only release from last year, Living Thing is Peter Bjorn and John’s follow-up to their widely-lauded 2006 LP, Writer’s Block. If you need a refresher, just think of “Young Folks.” Or, better yet, hear the album in its entirety since they were a lot more interesting than a mere buzz band who did that song that even your mom knows front-to-back. There’s some good news and bad news for the group’s new album. Thankfully, there isn’t a song on here that will be raped and murdered by commercials and pop culture like “Young Folks” was. Unfortunately, there isn’t a song as memorably catchy as “Young Folks” was.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Living Thing is a darker and stiffer journey than the last, one punctuated by knife-like synths, hollow percussion clangs, fuzzed-out fills and vocals that alternate between a particularly trodden and despairing Lennon-esque puncture and reverb-doused warbling. The closest they come to a potential alt-radio hit contains a refrain that blurts, “Hey, shut the fuck up, boy! You are starting to piss me off.” Also hook-friendly is “Nothing to Worry About,” which features the second recent usage of a children’s choir to eerie effect. They chant like The Wall's orphans gone gangster and help kick you in the proverbial head—the murky menace is positively disturbing once you step away from the martial beat.

Other songs feel as vacant as Ian Curtis on a sleepy heroin binge. In fact, “It Don’t Move Me” sounds like the transition that Joy Division made to New Order in the early 80s, from the vacant drone to the chilly, thumping beat. “I’m Losing My Mind” uses spaced-out, angular guitar chords for the verses, but the strut is like a zombie; the creases in the chorus choke up on the mic and a series of four-step beats drive home the agony. “4 out of 5” sounds like the kind of soul-sucking defeat we typically go to There’s a Riot Goin’ On Here for, but not with the same revelatory and triumphant shock.

Even the gentler moments wallow in the murk. Before the chirping synth line takes us into “Blue Period Picasso”’s arms, we get a mashed a cappella shuffle and a match crackle. Even then, the vocals are disembodied except when the upper notes need to get struck by the register. Finger snaps and oohing back-ups help the sentimental mood of “Stay This Way,” but the tempo drags its feet like Eeyore first feeling the effects of a roofie. And the title track sounds like an 80s pop icon (Sting, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, etc.) trying out that decade’s hot-button issue of eco-concern and incorporating an Afro-jungle style. Somehow, this isn’t a cover of the ELO song, despite featuring a chorus that states, “It’s a living thing, it’s a terrible thing to lose.” It’s one of the album’s silliest moments, but the chorus will stick to your ribs. That 80s/Africa theme even echoes on the next song (“I Want You”) which finds the vocals styled like Graceland’s Paul Simon.

Any aspirations for dance mixes are nixed pretty quickly, but I doubt they had the intention of getting people on their feet for this one. Their precision and passion for a strong rhythm can’t be denied, but bleakness and introspection doesn’t make for shaking. Instead, they drag out the tempos and let them breathe (or at least try to breathe, like you would if you found yourself in the unenviable position of floating through outer space after you plumb forgot to bring your helmet). Then they coat the rhythms in grime and gauze. This process allows the album to pass by on that first listen so the mood can snag you, but then on the second spin you begin to discover the lock-step percussion on several of them. You’ll never want to start a party with this album, but there are enough head-nodding moments to keep you interested even when they fumble the beat.

If this is the sound of maturation or just the act of an outfit escaping the agonizing pressure and fleet of fair weather fans looking for another “Young Folks,” they succeed in stepping away from that self-made shadow. The eclecticism of Writer’s Block kept us coming back, but they’re more focused here for a stronger ensemble. It’s not a fun record, but neither is it one you’ll balk at returning to on an appropriately austere afternoon. Still, climbing out of that hole must have been a slippery trek. This one shows a wearily beating heart, bleeding black.

"Living Thing" is on sale March 31, 2009 from Almost Gold.

Matt Medlock


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