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“Our common goal was to talk less and play music more,” Björn says. “The idea of ‘anything goes’ that applied to the last album stayed, but we decided to do it all ourselves this time. We cut out any meaningless discussions and middle men, and made each band member his own boss and producer. We didn’t have to explain every move we made.”
“It was about going back to how we used to work,” Peter adds. “In the past we put out a record every second year and most of them we produced ourselves in Stockholm. I really enjoy making records quick. And then on to the next thing – constantly moving. It helps keep the joy of it.”
The trio spent some time together in Stockholm’s Atlantis Studios laying down basic tracks and then separated to work on the songs individually. They agreed on the title of Darker Days, which became a starting point and the eventual central thread of the album. The idea was that each band member would be responsible for his own songs, both in the writing and the production. The band members would play on each other’s songs, at various studios around Stockholm. While the last album was grandiose in concept, this one would be composed and simple, connected by both the title and the musicians themselves.
“This time we’re highlighting our differences instead of trying to always agree,” John says. “It’s ten songs with ten different shades of darkness. Coming from the north of Sweden we are used to the static state of not seeing the sun for six months. It’s a melancholic feeling, rather than pessimistic or apocalyptic. We interpreted the theme in different ways. It can be the gloom of a pitch black Swedish forest or the blackness of a newspaper headline or a personal tragedy. You can hear the three of us in different variations on this album.”
“Music should really be in the ear and eye of the beholder and up for interpretation,” Peter adds. “But no one can say anything against the idea that we are indeed living in dark times for lots of reasons: political, environmental etc. Whatever the separate songs’ initial conception was, the theme was definitely a helpful path to bring the project together.”
The idea of the title indeed appears in different incarnations throughout the album, which retains the charming melodic pop sensibility of the band’s previous releases. Björn found himself focusing on relationships and how those relationships are specifically affected by living in Sweden. “Wrapped Around the Axle,” a shimmering indie pop number, observes how two people have to untangle themselves during a breakup, asking “How do we unwrap ourselves from the messes we make?” John looked through a different sort of lens, particularly on “Heaven and Hell,” the album’s introspective closing track. The poem-like song is unlike any of PBJ’s prior numbers, offering a chain of existential snapshots.
Peter conjures up the one contrasting track, a soulful number with a lo-fi Motown swing called “One For the Team,” which is about pepping each other up, even during these shadowed times.
“It’s about the band, in a way,” he notes. “It’s about being proud of having been able to stay together for this long and being a band. We put the pettiness aside to make music. There’s worth in what we’ve built and that we’re still doing it together. On this record it all goes back to the three-piece. It all starts with the three of us and then we put stuff on top of that. We have a DNA and you can recognize our style even when we write separately.”
Indeed, Darker Days feels resolutely like a Peter Bjorn and John album, although it hints at new ideas and refreshed tones. The three musicians have stayed together through thick and thin, always coming back together no matter what musical adventures they have as individuals. That history comes through in every note, even when the notes are written in separate rooms. There’s just no denying, especially as the songs on this album unfold, that PBJ have a chemistry that only comes from years of being a band, from creating and releasing numerous albums and from spending years on the road touring.
That sentiment is reflected in the album’s cover art, which depicts three broken bones coming together in a triangle. For John, that image represents how the three musicians had to dig into their past to find fossils of themselves in order to rebuild themselves from what they’ve learned. “To form that image you have to break our bones,” Björn adds. “You have to dig deep and work hard to get it together, which we have on the past few albums. It’s about a state of mind. Not death, but resurrection.”
One listen to Talos’ brilliant debut, Wild Alee, and his architecture background begins to make perfect sense. The music is grand and soaring, perpetually reaching skyward while remaining firmly grounded with foundations dug deep into the soil. Some songs are bright and airy, full of natural light, while others lend an eerie and imposing atmosphere, all shadowy corners and mirrored hallways. Blending elements of electronic pop and soulful R&B with hypnotizing synthscapes and haunting vocals, each track offers its own vivid sense of space, conjuring up an immersive journey that blurs the lines between dreaming and waking, between reality and fantasy, between the ordinary and the extraordinary.
“I’d like to think that the music is transportive,” French reflects. “Even though the songs came from a painful place, there’s an optimistic thread running through them because I wanted to create something uplifting. I wrote these songs as a promise of better things to come.”
Better things did indeed come. Upon its original release overseas in 2017, Wild Alee was hailed as “a spectacularly assured debut” (The Irish Times), while The Independent called it “stunning,” and The Line Of Best Fit raved that the music “will leave your hairs standing on end.” Some of the earliest fans in the States included The New York Times T Magazine, which praised the songs’ “taut, chilling complexity,” and The FADER, which swooned for their “swirling” splendor. The record garnered love from BBC Radio 1, racked up more than 16 million streams on Spotify, made the shortlist for the prestigious RTÉ Choice Music Prize for Irish Album of the Year, and earned Talos (which performs live as a six-piece) a sold-out release tour along with festival appearances everywhere from Electric Picnic to Airwaves.
Now, as French prepares a deluxe reissue of Wild Alee complete with a four-track bonus EP titled Then There Was War, it’s difficult to overstate just how unlikely all of this seemed only a few years ago. Back then, French was readying himself for a new life in America when unexpected personal challenges suddenly conspired to ground him just weeks before his planned departure. Instead of stepping on a plane, he found himself sitting at home with no hope and no prospects. Writing music became a form of escape, an opportunity to leave his circumstances behind and create his own world right where he was.
“A lot of the songs on the album represent this imagined journey,” French explains. “They’re very visual and capture these particular spaces and scenes that I felt like, maybe subconsciously, I had missed out on. I was envisioning them through the music I was creating.”
French picked up work lecturing in architecture at the University College Cork to make ends meet as he meticulously crafted his songs, building each track from the ground up. While early Talos tunes like the dreamy, heartwrenching “Tethered Bones” spread like wildfire online, French insisted on moving at his own rate, pushing himself deeper and deeper with every track. The more time he spent recording, the more intricate and sophisticated his demos became, and slowly but steadily, he amassed the material for Wild Alee.
“It took four and a half years to make the record,” says French, who worked on the music in Dublin and Iceland before ultimately returning to finish it in West Cork with producer Ross Dowling (James Vincent McMorrow, Bell X1). “If it had happened at a more rapid pace, I don’t think I would have had as much control over it, and I don’t think it would have felt nearly as personal to me as it does.”
The end result is an arresting blend of ache and beauty, a record that encompasses both joy and pain in equal measure. The ‘Alee’ of the album’s title refers to the side of a ship that’s sheltered from the wind in a storm, and that coexistence of peace and tumult is a perfect reflection of the music’s duality: revealing and private, curious and comforting, strange and familiar. The spacious “This Is Us Colliding” engages in unflinching self-examination, while the abstract lyrics of the breezy “Contra” paint a portrait of lovers seeking refuge in each other, and the defiant “Voices” celebrates the magic of throwing caution to the wind and stepping into the unknown.
But where Wild Alee floats through the darkness on an undercurrent of optimism and faith in brighter days to come, Then There Was War examines a harsher reality where the darkness remains.
“I think the EP is the record’s antithesis, which is just the way I wanted it,” says French. “It’s boisterous and haphazard in places. It’s more expansive and it’s deeper. I suppose it’s kind of post-apocalyptic in a way.”
Lead single “Kansas” shifts from haunting to explosive as it examines our penchant for self-destruction, while “Odyssey Part 2” takes the hopeful quest from the LP to a far more sinister place, imagining that only emptiness and solitude await at the journey’s end. Despite the EP’s seemingly nihilistic outlook, though, a silver lining emerges with “D.O.A.M.,” in which the departure of a muse, while difficult, prompts French to realize that he’s possessed this art inside himself all along.
“The music is an honest reflection of myself,” French concludes. “I’m not hiding anything here. People can take it or leave it, but these songs highlight me starkly, with every blemish and mark.”
In that respect, French is still something of an architect, and Wild Alee is one of his ultimate designs: a magnificent musical creation that’s simultaneously fragile and powerful, transparent and reflective, revealing and protective, a house of glass and steel. Sturdy enough to weather even the most turbulent of storms, these are the songs of a master craftsman, painstakingly assembled from the heart and built to last a lifetime.