Critical Voices: Peter, Bjorn, & John Con

April 2, 2009

Peter Bjorn & John’s Writer’s Block is one of my favorite albums of the decade, so naturally I found myself counting down the days until Living Thing leaked. Sure, the instrumental stopgap Seaside Rock was mostly boring and tossed off, but I figured PB&J were just getting some kinks out before releasing their real follow-up. But shit … this time around, writer’s block isn’t just a cheeky play on words. Living Thing is a half-cooked response to sudden success.

It’s immediately clear how gimmicky this thing is. Where Writer’s Block opened with an anthemic, lush, and unabashedly traditional arrangement on “Objects of my Affection,” Living Thing kicks off with “The Feeling”—all tribal drums, handclaps, and simplistic a capella melody. By the end of the song, Peter has repeated “I feel it / Do you feel it?” so many times I want to gouge my eardrums out.

Much to my chagrin, PB&J repeat that barebones template more than a few times. It sounds like they just discovered drum machines and sampling and lost interest in writing full-fledged songs. Occasionally the approach works, like on second single “Lay it Down.” Its chorus? “Hey, shut the fuck up boy / You are starting to piss me off.” It works because the music in this instance does, too—it’s got a cheery, bouncing rhythm and recaptures the great sense of wonder that made Writer’s Block so great.

But when the band tries to mix barebones with ballads—which unfortunately describes the bulk of Living Thing—it’s a disaster. “Just the Past,” “I Want You,” and “Stay this Way” are mind-numbingly boring, even with their cute little snaps, kabooms, and smacks. If the band is going to try to get by on this studio wankery, Bjorn should go back to producing albums for young starlets, and the others should become whalers or knitters or whatever the hell Scandinavian people do for a living.

The album’s first single, “Nothing to Worry About,” hinted that the band would try to remake their mega-hit “Young Folks” 12 times and call it a day, which was distressing even if the song kicked ass. Now I cry myself to sleep wishing they had made that album. Living Thing is a disappointment of colossal proportions.

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