Bad timing delayed the start of Peter Björn and John’s first set at this year’s SXSW festival. Sound and equipment problems marred their songs. The audience responded with a chorus of boos and heckles, bad enough for the AP to write a story about the aborted show. Still, it might be the best thing to happen to the Swedish trio.
After laboring as an unknown band for their first couple of albums, their 2006 hit “Young Folks” became a semi-smash, crowning the band an overnight success ten years in the making. Then Peter Björn and John released a low-key, all-instrumental album, titled Seaside Rock, last year. Predictably, it didn’t beget a hit single. At a festival built on hype and anticipation, getting booed years after your last single is as good as applause. People still care about Peter Björn and John.
But Peter Björn and John must know a thing about expectations now. Seaside Rock seemed like a buffer against anticipation. Living Thing overflows with references to the past, but it references history only to deny its importance. “Forget...all the people who matter” vocalist/guitarist Peter Moren sings on “It Don’t Move Me,” over the song’s slight, thin beat and crashing piano. Later: “History is done.” Maybe it is: the hook sits on Moren’s voice, not on any instrument, certainly not a whistle. After building their biggest hit on an exotic, addictive whistled melody, they’ve toned down the bigger hooks and kept things sparse and hollow. Living Things trades in subtler sounds and nuanced vocal melody.
It’s a well-tested move. Bassist Björn Yttling produced last year’s breakout album from Lykke Li, and his techniques for drawing out her best qualities — sparse beats, restrained instrumental touches — form the backbone of this record. Peter Björn and John also share her gift for a sort of focused lyricism. It renders their lyrics with an honesty that can feel both vulnerable and over-confident at once. On “Nothing To Worry About” Moren sings “If you’ve got problems/why don’t you try to solve them?” It’s rhetorical — he sounds like he could care less. The title line comes off like a taunt, and not at all the same carefree sentiment they expressed on “Young Folks.” The track’s minimal beat plays props up the catchiest chorus on the record: a group of children, singing the title line like a gang of playground hecklers. The album’s title track is nearly all space, the reverse echo on Moren’s voice as important a production choice as its thin, wiry beat and saw guitars. “You gotta keep me awake,” Moren demands, again.
Thing is, PB&J were always kinda mean. Aside from “Young Folks,”Writers’ Block had bummers like “Let’s Call It Off” and “Objects of My Affection,” naked songs about breakups and boredom. Their lyrics naturally push forward when everything else gets pulled back, and it usually works. Living Thing doesn’t work when the guys wrap their sentiments in silly metaphor, such as on “Blue Period Picasso,” a song written from the point of view of a painting. One clever line (“I’m too early/I’m seen as ‘development’”) can’t save the metaphor, which is so light on meaning that it makes the snap of its snare drum sound especially brittle.
Peter Björn and John won’t write anything as immediately likable as “Young Folks” again. But Living Thing does, over time, offer smaller pleasures. The worst and most nonsensical heckle from their SXSW performance: “Show us that you give a shit!” The band barely reacted. And really, anyone who’s listened to one song past “Young Folks” knows the band’s strength is in not giving a shit. “Young Folks” itself was a list of things they didn’t care about. On Living Thing’s “Lay It Down,” the band sings “Hey, shut the fuck up boy/You’re starting to piss me off,” but their profanity comes off laughable, uncommitted. There might be an element of self-sabotage in the absurd aggression of that hook, as though they were trying to spoil what might have been a bouncy, “Young Folks”-type hit. We can go anywhere to get overheated paens and passionate overtures, but as soon as PB&J lose their cool, they’ll lose their audience.