Peter, Bjorn & John:: Writer’s Block (US Bonus Version) (Album Review)
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 off-handed 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 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. [Writer’s Block was issued in the U.S. with a bonus disc containing some nice extras like the original mix without steel drums of “Let’s Call It Off,” a couple of non-LP songs, remixes of “Young Folks” and “All Those Expectations” (a song from Falling Out), and a fun version of “Young Folks” with Peter playing the melody on sitar (“Sitar Folks”). It’s not essential listening, but it makes for a nice addition to the album.]