opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >
Until now, this band’s story has been a disappointing one, a cautionary tale of diminishing returns. The mysterious, perpetually blazed Swedish duo came on strong but burned out early with the cheap high of “Ecstasy.” They made wistful Balearic indie pop that vaporized on impact (can’t stop with these weed puns). Between their spotlight-shy persona, their bad reputation for showing up to live shows too wasted to function (or just not showing up at all), and the fact that they were entirely content to lift whole choruses from chart-topping pop hits rather than write a decent melody of their own, it’s no wonder they’d all but vanished from the popular radar by 2012, only four years into their career. Back then, they were called jj. Now, they’re back, and they’re called JJ. The first single from V is titled “All White Everything,” but they might as well have called it “ALL CAPS EVERYTHING.” The ingredients are all the same: a lush, somber swirl of strings, piano, guitar, and steel drums, but always leaning awkwardly towards the synths and slang of mainstream club-friendly rap. Here, though, it’s all bolder, fuller, and, well, better.
On V’s “Inner Light,” Elin Kastlander sings, “When I’m up in the club, I won’t be on them drugs,” before adding, “If you show me love, you might get a hug, but if you don’t, then I won’t care at all.” Not only does this lyric simultaneously reference both “Ecstasy” and a Robyn song, thereby neatly summarizing all of JJ’s major themes (drugs, pop music, romantic longing), it also demonstrates the way in which the band’s turned its own deeply engrained #DGAF philosophy around 180 degrees, spinning slackerdom’s cheap, toxic apathy into glittering bigtime pop-star dreams, hearts wide open and haters be damned. The opening title track from new LP V dips into the exact same sparkling keyboard hook as “Things Will Never Be The Same Again,” the opening song from their breakthrough LP jj no. 2, only to cut it off abruptly and begin anew with the walloping, widescreen “Dynasti.” If I told you that “Inner Light” climaxes with a bona fide electric guitar solo, would you believe me?
Particularly because of their noted tendency to bite the hooks from more famous pop songs, Kastlander and her JJ cohort Joakim Benon have always seemed exceptionally lazy, unable to concentrate, as if they’d really rather be out dancing to those pop songs rather than in the studio recording their own. On V, they play the magpies once again, but the fragmentary citations augment the songs rather than drive them, setting the emotional tenor but never standing clearly in the spotlight. “Hold Me” sounds like it’s another of the duo’s one-trick-pony radio-ripping bangers, but the bottomed-out beat and pitched-down vocal samples collapse into a swooning string-laden reverie that’s more Sigur Ros than Lil Jon. “Dream a little, dream of me,” Kastlander murmurs on “When I Need You,” but although her words are some of twentieth-century pop’s best-known, what matters here is the stark, stirring pairing of a simple steel drum hook and violin flourishes, and later, on the slick, tough pop-punk of “All Ways, Always,” she picks up the thread of the earlier allusion and makes something actually interesting out of it when she says she doubts whether “there was even a dream of me.”
“All Ways, Always” loses its way somewhere along the line and ends up stargazing over somber piano chords. This is indicative of V, which bursts with ambitious arrangements that meander with purpose; on every track, luminous songwriting decisions abound. “All White Everything” is the album’s most successfully massive moment, a song that blows both heartbroken power balladry and dancefloor-baiting chart-pop up to a scale so grand, the two modes become indistinguishable. Particularly stunning is “Full,” which blooms slowly into a series of cyclical phrases as inevitable and exquisite as the chorus of “Beth/Rest.”
The last time JJ released an album, debates about racial appropriation in pop were nowhere near as commonplace as they are today. If Lorde can get raked over the coals for “Royals,” I shudder to think what’s headed these white Swedes’ way for their more-painful-than-ever “ironic” cooption of rap slang – to take one example, “All Ways, Always” finds Kastlander spouting stuff like, “I got bitches all up in my mess, I can’t fuck wit y’all.” It would be simple and probably very appropriate to take JJ to task for the politics of their lyrics, but words aside, it’s unlikely anyone will take issue with JJ’s immaculate instincts as pop songwriters. B