Peter Bjorn & John
hile we wait for the lexicon to catch up to the reality, we can at least suggest that the ‘independent’ of indie pop doesn’t just mean ‘produced on an independent label’ anymore, though that’s often still the case. It’s come, for convenience’s sake, to mean transcending looks, as mastered by the likes of Beyoncé and Fall Out Boy, and actually having depth, sophistication, and a modicum of genius. To catch a look, watch a music video, listen to a 30-second iTunes store clip, or listen to an album once. Ironically, if those looks hold your gaze for more than a day, it’s not just pop. It’s excellent music.
The pop/rock line is blurring, perhaps because the term ‘pop’ is insulting. Often now, into to the popscape seeps the gnarly elegance usually left to indie rock. This dirty, tarnished “look” manifests itself on the first track of Writer’s Block, “Objects of My Affection,” which plunges into a flirtation with the clutter and slop neatly orchestrated by self-producing outfits like the Arcade Fire and a dozen others. But Peter Morén’s vocals command like a two-part Beatles harmony circa A Hard Day’s Night, and we’ll be hearing more of that cleaner genre as the album progresses. But really, the Beatles reference (upon reference) is the only reason this album should be classified under pop.
Other “pop” bands have succeeded in disguising typical pop elements with producer absenteeism, underfed mixing, and first takes, but Writer’s Block, produced by the band’s own Bjorn Yttling, goes the route of a cool, minty-fresh sound that only twice clambers on stage for a moment of grit (the second time is “Start to Melt”). Otherwise the sound is crisp and harnessed.
The subject of the album is—cringe—lovemaking (the innocent 19th century definition). It’s an ode to friendship, hardship, courtship, and bedship. But, rather incriminatingly, love is a pop phenomenon. All the “young folks,” “old folks,” and “wrong folks” ignored by the enamored couple-to-be in “Young Folks” have been victims of it, or will be. Love is love; it possesses the same characteristics and it suffers by the same clichés across continents and history. So PB&J aptly fixate on the delicacies of this human preoccupation, magnifying them, picking them apart, and reworking them.
“Paris 2004” zooms in on love’s familiar day-to-day: lovers as they wake up together, obsessively dine out together, and frequently go late to work…together. The song is founded upon one of the cheeriest acoustic guitar refrains in recent years, and instantly it’s an addictive theme song for spanking-new love. The sound is balls-out sentimentality. There’s no diffidence in sight. The chorus, “I’m all about you / You’re all about me / We’re all about each other,” nearly makes you sick to your stomach, but when you find yourself returning to the track, you’ll realize that it’s giddiness you’re feeling. You get this track’s point. And if you don’t, you probably want to.
Another chapter: we all know what exhaustive courtship feels like, the boredom that’s inspired by playing the field, the drunken disillusionment that can ensue from playing the field, and how love makes its surprise attacks. “Young Folks,” the album’s first single, is yet another shining translation of a tired romantic scenario. The subject of the song is the hook-up, the antecedent to the happiness the couple will enjoy in Paris in 2004. And importantly, it’s a duet. With an echoing ’60s backdrop of shakers and pounding bass, the dialogue proceeds. Boy (Morén) asks girl (to paraphrase), “Would you still like me if you knew what I was really like?” Girl (Victoria Bergsman) responds it doesn’t matter what he’s done, and encourages him, “We can stick around and see this night through.”
The song progresses; the night progresses. Then comes Bergsman’s smoky, sexy, languid delivery of the line, “No one will surprise me unless you do,” oozing the quiet impatience of love’s willing victims. We imagine her voice to be reverbed into the dark shadows of a party’s thinning crowd. She subtly coaxes us into abolishing love’s bullshit fine print, instead reaching for the messages writ large and turning them into sultry whispers.
The only time the muse is shelved (“Poor Cow”) is the only time the album drags, which is a point against rock and its penchant for inanimate cynicism, shrugs, and dejection, and another point for pop, which, let’s face it, is predominantly smiling—whether coyly, cloyingly, or undetectably.
“Objects” is, emotively speaking, the strongest track, with percussive force and the superior position of being Chapter One in the story. Here Morén is readying to ditch solitude, perhaps without even knowing it. “I laugh more often now / I cry more often now / I am more me,” he proclaims with just a quick glance at the past. The song is a foreshadowing triumphal march that spills hope and energy into each of the tracks that follows it. Even the languorous and verseless “Roll the Credits” careens for six and a half minutes without annoying the ear. Its scintillating Walkmen-like guitars slide between two or three notes, and the lyrics tap into another familiar sentiment, this time a bit of a denouement: “It’s just me and her now.” The melody is repeated calmly, confidently, and slowly until the point is hammered home, then referred back to. The album is a meta, and each song, a segment of dialogue.
We can’t call this rock because it’s downright friendly. The songs’ body language is suggestive of that rare person who is simply and unequivocally nice. And we all know what nice rock sounds like. But true pop doesn’t ever do this—not only betraying a passion most of us are too embarrassed to show as pop, but beckoning us to explore and even exploit it. Writer’s Block has announced the renaissance of both pop music and love. The memorable compositions connote love’s predictability and worship it all down the winding path, from object to subject, and from ideal to actuality.