Peter Bjorn and John’s fifth album is, in turns, stubborn, difficult, and revelatory. Opening with “The Feeling,” a skeletal arrangement offers singer/guitarist Peter Moren detachedly delivering a deadpan vocal over a bombastic kick bass, programmed handclaps, and a tinkering one-note synth line. It seems both an obvious and intentional about face from 2006’s ubiquitous “Young Folks,” the song the trio, now ten years strong into their career, earned worldwide popularity with.
Whether or not Living Thing is a direct response to their sudden and unexpected fame is never truly revealed, one might easily surmise that Peter Bjorn and John weren’t exactly keen on the idea of being pop darlings.
“It Don’t Move Me” extends Living Thing’s stern exercise in minimalism. With an echoed sneer, muted bass, and occasional smattering of synth and piano, the tracks sheer playability serves as testament to the less-is-more tactic artfully executed here. This is largely due to the production prowess of the trio as well as co-producer Lars Marten, who make every handclap, drum roll, and keyboard lovingly fill up the empty spaces of these songs. But the sparse, electro-inclined approach also works because no matter how left field the tracks are, and no matter how deep into the trenches Peter Bjorn and John wish to take us, Peter Moren’s generous melodies add a warmth that always manage to lull the listener back in from the deep.
The closest Living Thing comes to a pop anthem is “Nothing to Worry About,” a quirky number that hints at both Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” and Peter Bjorn and John’s own “Amsterdam.” Featuring a children’s choir on the chorus, it also provides a welcome breather in between the darker, denser tracks off the album.
Elsewhere, gems like “Blue Period Picasso” and “I’m Losing My Mind” are thoughtfully constructed around an a capella vocal, the former featuring a lively splicing of Kraftwerk-esque keyboards and Ben E. King-reminiscent soul, the latter taking cue from Devo with a menacing cuffed guitar brewing under the surface of a restless percussive piece that sounds like cans being dragged over prison bars.
Living Thing isn’t easy listening, it functions best on headphones, and it doesn’t contain an obvious single. But music should be challenging. After all, working for one’s music often makes the reward that much sweeter. And Peter Bjorn and John want to see who’s up to the task.