Review by Tim Sendra
Peter Bjorn and John's third album deserves every bit of attention and hype it's received, from large media outlets right down to the lowliest blog. It's a major work of post-everything indie rock that has enough hooks, production genius, and emotional strength to make other rock acts (indie or otherwise) sound like they are just wasting everyone's time. The group's previous two albums were excellent power pop records with an excess of brains and style, whereas Writer's Block scales back the guitars in favor of subtler arrangements that deliver just as much power sonically and ups the stakes in every other way. Every song has that kind of stripped-down, well-thought-out, whatever-works production style that brings the music fully to life. Check the steel drums on "Let's Call It Off," the shh-shh-shh percussion on "The Chills," or the majestic tubular bells of "Roll the Credits" for Spectorian shoegaze production magic. Or look at the infectious single "Young Folks" for the key to why the record sounds so right. Here they added the whistling as a marker for a future instrument but realized the offhanded whistle was just what the song needed. These are the decisions that make for greatness. Sure, the songs would have worked fine with just guitar-bass-drums backing, but the arrangements are like huge hooks that catch you and won't let go. The band also isn't content to stick to a formula. From the reverberating New Order sound of "Up Against the Wall," the small-group balladry of "Poor Cow," and the dynamic indie rock hum of "Objects of My Affection" to the austere synth pop of "Amsterdam," each song has a unique feel that adds up to an album that works as a whole as well as a collection of great songs.
While the sound of Writer's Block is varied, the lyrical content is pretty black-and-white, focusing on the highs and (mostly) lows of romance. On the high side there's the giddy us-against-the-world "Young Folks," which is as nice a love ballad as you'll hear anywhere. Victoria Bergsman and Peter Moren's duet is enough to warm the heart of even the grumpiest romance snob. The lilting "Paris 2004," which features the perfectly sweet line "while I'm sleeping you paint a ring on my finger with your black marker pen," is also heartbreakingly romantic. The lows are as low as the highs are high. You have lovers about to break up ("Let's Call It Off," "Up Against the Wall," and "Roll the Credits"), guys feeling wistful as hell ("The Chills"), and absolutely desolate heartache ("Objects of My Affection"). Without the love songs, this would have been a very bleak listen; as it is, the balance is just right. It's pretty rare for a band to get better after being together as long as PB&J. Usually they peter out quickly and start releasing retreads or desperate attempts to make a statement or keep a record deal. Writer's Block is the work of a band at the absolute peak of its writing and performing skill. It's hard to imagine Peter Bjorn and John getting better than this. Hopefully they will, but if not, they'll always have this album to call their masterpiece.
Peter Bjorn and John
So, the title's just a pun. Peter Morén, Bjorn Yttling, and John Erikkson all wrote songs for their third album, Writer's Block, but where last year's heartbroken Falling Out drew inspiration mainly from 1960s pop, the Stockholm-based trio's latest LP finds them aspiring to new levels of sonic diversity, exploring everything from lo-fi 80s electronics and shoegaze guitars to slacker beats and icy dreamscapes. It's a lot of new ground for a band to have covered in a year's time; fortunately, PB&J (uh, yeah, we know) managed to harness their melodic expertise and cultivate their textural craftsmanship at precisely the same time. The result is their most focused and fully realized effort yet-- an album that adds an imperial hugeness to the teen noir and garage-y psychedelia of their past efforts-- and one of the better pop records we've heard this year.
Aided by Yttling's solid production (he's also worked with the Concretes and Shout Out Louds), Writer's Block's sonic textures demand attention first: odd synths, overdriven bass, dreamy harmonies, rolling drums, pink streaks of guitar noise, or a foot tapping in soft focus. But ultimately, the album is just as notable for the way it captures both the electric first moments of a deep relationship and the bleary aftermath of post-breakup malaise. The infectious, lazily whistled hook and playful bongo drums of first single "Young Folks" are immediately inviting, but the song's second layer-- the coy chemistry between Morén and ex-Concretes singer Victoria Bergsman-- adds depth, as the song's two hopeful strangers discover each other by chance: "All we care about is talking/ Talking only me and you."
As an album, Writer's Block shares these new lovers' singular focus. "Paris 2004" is a classical guitar-tinged traveler's ballad in the manner of John Cale's near-perfect "Andalucia", exchanging Cale's studied ambiguity for sentimental bedazzlement; Erikkson's "Start to Melt" flickers with amazed adoration; and Morén's "Objects of My Affection" combines the dramatic flair of an uncharacteristically upbeat Morrissey with the nasal vocals and ringing acoustic guitars of a post-Loveless "Like a Rolling Stone".
The album's narrators cast an equally attentive eye on love's jagged downside. Amid the simplistic percussion and glassy Flaming Lips chorus of "Amsterdam", Yttling mopes over his loneliness during a lover's vacation, before Erikkson's starry-eyed "Up Against the Wall" pictures a relationship at the precipice. "It's almost that I wish we hadn't met at all," sings Erikkson against a crystalline rhythm that could pack a John Hughes prom.
Written by the full trio, "The Chills" pays quiet homage to the New Zealand indie group of the same name, and steeps its bitterness in caustic one-liners ("Your tongue is sharp/ But I miss the taste of it"). And at last, Yttling's big-screen "Roll the Credits" pictures an escape, but as usual on Writer's Block, the romance fills the frame: "It's between me and her now/ Can't separate at all/ Let's put the cards back in the sleeve." Only droning closer "Poor Cow" kills the mood, like the George Harrison sitar song contrarians might revisit when the rest of the album grows overly familiar.
For Peter Bjorn & John-- as with their Pitchfork-approved compatriots-- love is all. As such, a certain amount of actual writer's block should have been expected; after all, what Writer's Block seeks to portray is, in the end, ineffable. "And the question is: Was I more alive then than I am now?" Morén wonders on "Objects of My Affection", rejoindering, "I happily have to disagree/ I laugh more often now/ I cry more often now/ I am more me." If lyric poetry is, as Czech novelist Milan Kundera recently wrote, "the most exemplary incarnation of man dazzled by his own soul and the desire to make it heard," surely the pop song is the highest incarnation of all-consuming love and its fundamental need to be shared. Writer's Block, indeed.
-Marc Hogan, October 18, 2006