Breakin’ Point, PB&J's sixth album, enlists big-name producers like Paul Epworth, Greg Kurstin, and Emile Haynie. The result is the big pop album they've always seemed on the verge of making.
An indie band’s commercial breakthrough, when and if it comes, is a tricky landmark to pass unscathed. If the follow-up doesn’t catch, the band tends to go one of three ways: They can call it quits, accepting their commercial decrepitude; wind things down over a couple of albums, continuing to tour the hits as a glorified karaoke act; or, as a last resort, enlist some decorated pop producers who will, in theory, affix makeshift wings and propel them into the stratosphere. So it is with Peter Bjorn and John, a Swedish trio inseparably wed to a pretty whistling melody from 2006, whose songwriting smarts always promised an elusive second wind.
Breakin’ Point, their sixth album and first in five years, attempts to reclaim unpaid dues: written as the trio studied ABBA’s greatest hits, recorded in that band’s old studio, and completed with Paul Epworth, Greg Kurstin, Emile Haynie, and other major producers with considerable résumés. (The band's Björn Yttling, a notable producer in his own right, worked alongside Kurstin on Lykke Li's recent albums.) They return a new band: edges planed, eccentricities jettisoned, with a strict emphasis on the effortless hooks that made Writer's Block click. Song to song, they apply the formula with some success. But three albums on from that breakout LP, Breakin’ Point seems an optimistic title—in 2016, the record arrives almost a decade too late.
That’d be by-the-by if the songs served a purpose beyond mainstream expansion, which they sometimes do. Highlight “Hard Sleep” is convincingly euphoric, full of jubilant falsetto and carnival bombast. Its winning formula—lyrics of waning romance, choruses determined to bounce and soar regardless—is capably reproduced throughout the record. But the song stands out as a rare home-run on an album too blandly ambitious to stick in the memory.
Interestingly, PB&J have history folding their musical ennui into the songs themselves: Gimme Some’s “Second Chance” scans as a commentary on the struggle to replicate “Young Folks”’ success, while “It Don’t Move Me,” from Living Thing, juxtaposes post-relationship blues with self-referential allusions to a creative impasse. Into that lineage step the title track, with its throwback whistling melody, and “Pretty Dumb Pretty Lame,” a cautionary tale of ballooning egos and one-night-stands—“getting hooked on all the strangers barking your name.” It’s hard to tell whether the latter is a reprimand to industry prima donnas or a jab at the band itself. “If you enjoy what you do, don’t let it ruin you,” is the lyrical conclusion, before an ambiguously apathetic chorus: “Hey, don’t let it get to your head/Hey, others could do it instead.” Along with the decorated producers, the abandoned sonic trademarks, it makes you wonder if Breakin’ Point isn’t a vague experiment in which PB&J try, with maximum self-awareness, to “sell out.”
If that is the case—and fair play to them if so, they just haven’t quite pulled it off—you might’ve expected a finer focus on why great pop resonates. The songs are skilful constructions: dynamic, propellant, with jingly verses and big, punctual choruses. But PB&J are prone to fluffing the details—take “Dominos”’ unconscionably irritating chorus, or “Nostalgic Intellect”’s make-you-think lyrics: “What’s the point with a phone that smart/If you don’t have a flexible heart?” Clunky words aside, the songs, while uncluttered, suffer a particular kind of too-muchness. “We treated the album like 12 singles, rather than an album,” Peter Morén said recently, “which of course makes a very good album.” While there’s nothing wrong with that notion, the problem is that when a song’s drama simply exists—when every line throbs with urgency, yet the characters feel less like conflicted people than vessels for indie-pop intensity—the stakes feel low, the conflict superficial. For all its rousing clap-alongs, Breakin’ Point sounds like the lonely work of a band who’ve forgotten how to love their own music.