Since World War II, proficiency in English has been a requirement for entry into one of Sweden’s lovely, publicly financed universities. While I assume this policy was implemented to enhance Swedish economic competitiveness, its primary result was, of course, ABBA. (Ed. note: Cannot reverse first “B.”)
Central to that 375 million-album selling band’s success was the simple fact (whether known to the band or not, I have no idea) that language is all the more powerful when freed from things like meaning and coherence, simply used as ornamentation for delectable, sugary-sweet melodies. Compatriots Peter Bjorn and John (no commas, no diacritic mark, no ampersand) continue — again, knowingly? unknowingly? — in this tradition of cosmo pop equipped with nominally English lyrics.
They’re a catchy bunch.
That catchiness leads to portability; you can take a PB&J song and put it in your pocket and take it with you. Unfortunately, they don’t travel well, tending to disintegrate into unrelated fragments in little time at all. For example, the once-omnipresent “Young Folks” (woven into “Gossip Girl,” sampled by Kanye), quickly recedes to the opening’s tear of fantastic whistling and the endearingly stilted chorus (“We don’t care about the young folks / Talkin’ about the young style!”). It’s not so much a song as a series of ringtones.
On their third album, “Living Thing,” PB&J take a shot at constructing more durable musical confections. The results are mixed.
Lyrics-wise, things are still pretty slapdash, with the nadir being “Lay it Down”: “Hey, shut the fuck up boy / You are starting to piss me off / Take your hands off that girl / You have already had enough.” (That’s repeated seven times! Seven times!) Tough words, but lead singer Peter Morén’s Scandinavian inflection robs them of any hint of menace. Instead of giving yourself over to righteous anger, you just want to nod your head and weave your shoulders to the only thing that stays with you for awhile — the pogo-stick-inspired percussion.
Indeed, drums and foot stomps and handclaps and other unidentifiable percussion seem to be the glue that the trio has chosen to hold the 12 tracks together.
On track six, “Living Thing,” Edge-circa-Joshua-Tree darts in and out of chunky tribal beats (and some nonsense lyrics that I won’t even bother quoting). It really would have been a fantastic anchor, a nice full stop for a such a meandering album, but again you end up focusing on the one element: the title words, repeated over and over in barbershop bass.
Everything else falls short of these extremes of lyrical vacuity and overwhelming infectiousness. Only the perfectly calibrated “Nothing To Worry About” gets it just right, managing to place its herky-jerky chorus in solid sonic context, forging a coherent, danceable whole. It’s the single, a good choice; put it in your pocket for a rainy day.
A closing thought experiment: If Americans had to learn Swedish, what terrible or wondrous melodies would we unleash into the world?