Google Sweden, and you'll come up with some hits that sound positively utopian: phenomenal public schools, impossibly low crime rates, and a universal health-care system that could silence Michael Moore.
At first listen, the music of Peter Bjorn and John, the country's current indie-rock poster boys, appears to reflect this idyllic existence. They play bubblegum pop that could pass for latter-day Beach Boys. Foot-tapping percussion and jangly, hum-along guitar melodies are accented by maracas, bongos, and whistling. But a closer listen reveals that these sugary-sweet arrangements coat mournful, introspective lyrics of regret and love, both lost and found.
Take "Young Folks," the breakout single from the group's latest album, Writer's Block. The song hints at skeletons in the closet: "If I told you things I did before/Told you how I used to be/Would you go along with someone like me?" It's a melancholic question that's starkly at odds with the song's blithe whistle and hook.
The answer, sung as a duet with Victoria Bergsman (former frontwoman of fellow Swedish pop stars the Concretes) is an affirmation: "I would go along with someone like you/It doesn't matter what you did before." But for a song about falling in love again, "Young Folks" remains oddly haunted by self-doubt: Peter Morén, the group's primary singer and prodigious whistler, later sings, "Usually when things have gone this far, people tend to disappear." Of course, his reservations are juxtaposed with a lighthearted bongo backbeat.
Björn Yttling, the band's bassist and keyboardist, says that the lyrical dichotomy is no coincidence. "You don't want to go only dark or only happy," he says. "If you have gloomy lyrics, you maybe want to have some happy-trappy music to pep it up a bit. That's in every song we do."
PB&J isn't the first Swedish act to combine depressing lyrics with catchy pop rhythms. And they're hardly alone with their bubblegum-pop style. But what separates the songs of Peter Bjorn and John from those of their peers is their depth. The guys display a talent for penning words that are simultaneously bleak and hopeful.
To achieve this mix, Yttling (who also produced Writer's Block) says the group's recording process is as counterintuitive as the songs themselves. By combining individual sounds that Yttling refers to as "dirty" or "bad," they produce tracks that, when taken as a whole, sound spotless. "I want to include the rough parts, because it's very easy to record clean sounds nowadays," he says. "When I hear a song on the radio where they have recorded like it should be — very clean — I just turn it off."
The seeds of PB&J's bittersweet tunes were sewn in the mid-'90s, when pop- and twee-leaning bands like Roxette, Eggstone, and the Cardigans emerged from a Swedish scene that was struggling to find its identity in the wake of an Ace of Base-driven dance-pop craze. In addition to opening the door to U.S. success with their hit "Lovefool," the Cardigans and their contemporaries inspired a new generation of artists — PB&J included. "When we started our band, we listened to the Cardigans," recalls Björn. "We really like that stuff."
But the current lineup of Peter Bjorn and John didn't officially come together until the former two — who had been playing in various bands together for eight years — moved to Stockholm in 1999 and met drummer John Eriksson. After a self-titled release in 2002, the trio began garnering critical acclaim for its second album, 2005's Falling Out, which contained post-punk songs with the usual dark-sound-plus-dark-lyrics equation.
The success of last year's Writer's Block coincided with the group's decision to share lead vocal duties among all three members and embark on extensive tours. The latter has helped the band earn a reputation for live performances that transcend the recorded material. Many of the songs are treated with new arrangements — like Yttling's signature number, "Amsterdam," which is stripped to a rumbling bass and snare, Morén's whistling, and Yttling's baritone. "Young Folks" yields an impressive display of musical dexterity from Morén: He simultaneously plays maracas, bounces around the stage, and produces a perfectly pitched whistle.
"You don't want to just hear a copy of the album when you go to a live show," says Yttling. "We try to use a bit more improvisation. We've played together for eight years. We know each other. So at the spur of the moment, we can come up with stuff."
He also notes that the band's shift to more accessible song structures this time around helped make them indie-pop stars. "We play in a more consequential way now," he says. "We don't fool around with the basic pattern or structure like we used to. We tried to do more like Devo — more of a pattern of a hip-hop dancey feel to everything. We didn't want any surprises in the last part of a song."
But while the band's sparkly indie-pop can be a bit self-conscious, the divergent lyrics that ultimately define Writer's Block are less deliberate. "We write about things that have happened in our lives," says Yttling. "We didn't really have a plan with lyrics beforehand. But it seemed when you put it all together, it was kind of a cohesive thing. That's always something that happens after — even if you didn't plan it."