It’s telling that “Nothing to Worry About,” the first single from Swedish trio Peter Bjorn and John’s fifth album, Living Thing, would make its way to the Internet via Kanye West’s blog. Like a lot of people, especially music supervisors of primetime television dramas, Kanye was crazy for “Young Folks,” the whistle-fed earworm off the group’s 2007 album Writer’s Block. He sampled “Young Folks” on a mixtape and brought PB&J on stage to perform it with him when he played in Sweden. But Kanye’s initial leaking of and enthusiasm for “Nothing” is also unsurprising because the cut boasts the crucial elements required to make a hip-hop producer swoon: bulbous, leisurely bassline; mildly creepy, kid-sung hook; dappled droplets of handclaps and snare hits; and nothing so distracting as an actual tune to get in the way of all that gleaming soundboard gimmickry.
Fortunately for Kanye, but unfortunately for the rest of us, most of Living Thing follows in the vein of “Nothing to Worry About.” The group’s trajectory since the success of “Young Folks” has included a WTF-inspiring post-rock experiment and Peter Moren’s troubadour-ish solo outing, but it’s Björn Yttling’s work producing ’80s-influenced albums for Shout Out Louds and Lykke Li that brings the loudest presence to bear on Living Thing. Each one of these tracks is exquisitely produced, but in nearly every case the sonic brilliance is wasted on sub-par songs. The first 50 seconds of “Just the Past” contain a masterful buildup of twinkling keyboard, pulsing acoustic bass, and deeply echoing drums, but the anticipation dissipates, and is outright insulted, when Moren elbows in with a cheesy refrain about overcoming one’s old anxieties and giving in to love. “Stay This Way” has a snappy, lazy backbeat reminiscent of “Stand by Me” and wheezy choral flourishes, but the melody threading the song is too wordy, overwrought, and hard to follow. Here and elsewhere I found myself missing the unassuming grace of Li’s vocal kisses, and wondering whether my initial hunch that Youth Novels was more an expression of Yttling’s musical ideas than those of Li herself was seriously misguided.
In addition to a deficiency of hooks, Living Thing is further crippled by an all too obvious absence of charm. Writer’s Block songs like “Amsterdam” and “Let’s Call It Off” were able to be cheeky without seeming too jokey, earnest without seeming too naïve, lovelorn without seeming too sappy. “Losing My Mind” and “I Want You!” are two examples of how, on Living Thing, PB&J have lost their winning balance, fumbling toward aggressive, professional exuberance that rarely, if ever, seems honest. The former song is a relentless portrayal of frustration that never acclimates to the contrapuntal waves of staccato guitar wranglings and overdubbed “ahhh” vocal calls; it sounds like a drunk yelling and ramming his face into a wall until he passes out, or in this case, the song ends. “I Want You!” is, briefly put, a prelude to a bar fight, and its chorus goes, “Hey, shut the fuck up, boy/You are really starting to piss me off.” Seriously, guys, where did Victoria Bergsman go? And whatever happened to trying to “see this thing through”?