Peter Bjorn and John: Sweden's modest popsters

By Eric Kelsey

In the pop culture landscape, Sweden stands as a brand in itself. The easily consumable modernist design of IKEA, along with Sweden’s easily consumable pop music, plants a tale of commodified national aesthetics in our imaginations. The cause of national phenomenons reduce easily to myth and essence in its explanation: is it the water, or the long summer days and unending winter nights?
It’s difficult to locate a historical root for so-called Swedish pop music but its effects litter the horizon where it effortlessly reproduces itself across oceans. Madonna’s hit “Hung Up” owes its success to its sample of ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and the ABBA-inspired musical “Mamma Mia!” has sold over 20 million tickets worldwide.

“Writer’s Block,” the latest album from the Stockholm trio Peter Bjorn and John, confirms our notions of Swedish pop sensibility. They continue the long-line of successful and critically acclaimed Scandinavian acts that reach American shores with the expertly honed skill of economically merging form and function. Peter Bjorn and John fit the paradigm but do so by integrating sundry of form into a unity of alluring catchy pop.

The album’s title must be a joke because the songs appear to sprout as if they were a natural and unavoidable growth. “Writer’s Block” starts with the title song, a 16-second piano prelude that sounds as if it were recorded on the most primitive of equipment. The track is easy to think as misplaced garble, but if looking at the album as a whole unit, it “breaks the ice,” affording the album a point of departure to which it finds its totality.

The prelude blurs into the second track, “Objects of My Affection,” which starts with a burning, mid-tempo electric guitar. The album instantly takes shape, as its parts are isolated, muted and re-circulated. The song could easily be a Morrissey song from 1983. “I happily have to disagree!” guitarist Peter Morén cries, only to add, “I laugh more often now, I cry more often now…” The song resembles very little of The Smiths musically, but in a very Smiths-esque way, it introduces the leitmotiv of a human whistle. The sound is rather pastoral in its whimsy and innocence, but it ultimately loosens any tension and disagreeability that its high levels of production incur.

The whistle returns on the following track, “Young Folks.” Without a doubt the best song on an album full of best songs, “Young Folks” features a duet between Morén and Victoria Bergsman, formerly of The Concretes. Morén and Bergsman sing over a syncopated beat about two would-be lovers shunning the influences of other’s opinions. (“And we don’t care about the young folks / talkin’ ’bout the young style…/ and we don’t care about their own faults / talkin’ ’bout our own style / all we care ’bout is talking / talking only me and you”). Perhaps the beauty of “Young Folks” lies in the unassuming nature of Morén and Bergsman and the ways in which the sparse arrangements complement their dialogue.
The song is a microcosm of the album as a whole. It’s catchy, occasionally emotive and refreshingly devoid of pretense. Case in point is the subtle and synth-infused wanderlust of “Amsterdam” and the crawling hook of “Let’s Call It Off.”

At the moment when rock music feels like it’s on a perpetual decline, Peter Bjorn and John seem to making all the best moves. Although the band has no special niche for a reputation to precede it or cock-sure swagger, they’ve matured remarkably from the bursts of Elvis Costello-influenced rock on their self-titled debut to the resigned and germane on “Writer’sƒ?^Block.” Such attributes give Peter Bjorn and John the distinction of making some of the most compelling and simple pop rock available.