Music: 'Block' Party

Peter Bjorn and John: Sweden's biggest export since fish, blondes and ABBA?

Dec 2, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Johan Bergmark

In 2007, with the inescapable single, "Young Folks," Swedish Indie Pop trio Peter Bjorn & John entered the American cultural landscape

When it comes to presentation, ostentation has been out for a long time, a strange turn of events for Rock historians to ponder. Few would've imagined during the height of Mötley Crüe's powers that in less than a decade four scrawny, pasty, top-buttoned kids (Weezer) could become full-fledged Rock stars.

Granted, all conventions of style have long since been variously turned upside down and tossed out the window. But with Swedish trio Peter Bjorn and John, what you see is literally what you get. The band has implied in the past that band "names" are silly and saw no reason why their own monikers shouldn't be inscribed on the marquee. As you can see above, even commas are evidently seen as an excessive adornment.

Keeping it simple was also the strategy they deployed in the writing and recording of their third album, Writer's Block. It seems like an oddly ironic title for an album that would become so deservedly well regarded. Was the band being coy? Nope.

The title literally refers to their neighborhood. In Stockholm, Bjorn's apartment and separate studio are on one side of the canal and Peter and John are on the other. Again, what you see is what you get.

It was in this studio that the band recorded Writer's Block.

"In my own studio, you could be a lot more free with the days," bassist, drummer, keyboardist and tambourine (among other things) player Bjorn Yttling says. "And it was a very nice summer in Sweden that year."

In their approach to the album, the band co-opted a manifesto from one of their neighbors: that of the Dogme 95 movement, a cinematic style invented by filmmaker Lars von Trier in across-the-way Denmark. In Dogme 95-certified movies, the action is filmed using only natural elements with no props, sounds or lighting that isn't already part of the landscape. In short, no contrivances of any kind. In recording Writer's Block the band forbade themselves to spend more than four hours in the studio at one time and to change instruments frequently, all in the interest of keeping things spontaneous and to let the music flow naturally from themselves.

"In the studio, you just get tired if you stay in there for too long and I was doing all the engineering myself," Bjorn says. "As for changing instruments, we've actually done that before. Someone would come up with an idea and then introduce it to another guy and have him play it."

Although Writer's Block was released in Europe in May 2006, it became available in the U.S. only at the beginning of this year. The first single, "Young Folks," has been making the rounds through the usual key cultural distribution points (aka YouTube) and has shown up on Gray's Anatomy. Bjorn has never seen the show but once commented that he hoped it wasn't playing while someone was being cut up. (I told him more likely it played while someone was weeping copiously.)

"The show has something like 6 million viewers, and that's a good thing," Bjorn says indifferently.

The whistling that buoys the song along is now almost universally recognized. Like all singles, "Young Folks" doesn't necessarily represent the album. It's a perennial music industry condition that artists and consumers alike have always complained about.

Peter once stated simply that the song "did the work for the album." Bjorn's shrug is even more pronounced. "It doesn't really matter," he says. "If it was another song, it'd be the same question."

When removing "Young Folks" from the context of its status to discussing the song itself, however, Bjorn becomes more animated.

"We worked really hard on the lyrics," he says. "We actually spent more time on the lyrics than on the music."

Indeed, the contrast between the music and the lyrics on "Young Folks" is quite striking. Over the sylvan whimsy of the whistling and bongos, one hears a melancholy exchange between two would-be lovers, the male anxious that he will no longer be desirable once his true self is revealed, while the female reassures him that she doesn't expect perfection.

"I don't really like contradictions," Yttling says. "I prefer one feeling."

On bad albums, the hit single is the bait-and-switch. On good albums, it's just the beginning. Between Peter's Lennon-esque declarations, John's ghostly siren songs and Bjorn's Lou Reed-like deadpanning and, well, whistling, Writer's Block is by turns rousing, bittersweet and baldly clear-eyed when it comes to matters of the heart. If the lyrics are any indication, the band members are remarkably attuned to their own emotions, displaying a preternatural ability to sift through common neuroses and fallacies and make sense of them and even acting according to intellect on issues that usually lose out to temperament. They are their own shrinks.

For instance, underneath the Bacharach-like Elevator-Pop of "Let's Call It Off" is a not-so-easy recognition that a certain relationship isn't going anywhere even though it looks and feels good. On the anthemic "Objects of My Affection," Peter nostalgically looks back on the music of his youth and the former life it reminds him of and, after a period of reflection, comes to realize that he's better off today.

Of course, writing about something is easier than living it, and Bjorn is tight-lipped about the common headspace the members share and the episodes and experiences that might have inspired the songs, such as whether people spend too much time looking forward or looking behind.

"That is bad, don't do that," Bjorn says, chuckling. "We've been writing together a long time. The things I'm most proud of is the mastering, how it sounds through the PA. I didn't expect that."

PETER BJORN AND JOHN play Bogart's Sunday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.