Let’s get this straight right off the bat – there’s no whistling.
As a matter of fact, there’s little of anything resembling Peter Bjorn & John‘s trademark sound in frontman Peter Morén‘s solo album The Last Tycoon. Except Peter’s voice.
Not that I was hoping for a Writer’s Block duplicate. The opposite, actually – the attempt to switch sides faster than Anne Heche from the sound that made him semi-famous is the most commendable thing about the album. It tries.
But through no fault of Morén’s, his stuffed-up, somewhat eccentric delivery doesn’t really fit with this humble collection of sparse acousti-tunes. It’s just better in a context where it isn’t overwhelming the rest of the mix.
The songs. Well, the arrangements are subtle and sensitive. Acoustic guitars intertwine with pianos and string flourishes. “Tell Me In Time” and “Social Competence” find Morén adding a little life into the mix to offset the vocals, and those are my favorite tracks. The problem is that most plod along – too slow to be lively and too bland to be that sad kind of beautiful that lifts and breaks your heart at the same time. There are moments, sure, but they’re sparse and fleeting.
Which is the best way to describe this album as a whole. It’s benign, genuine, and well-intentioned, but it rests in your head for only as long as you’re listening to it. When the final track fades, so does its impact.
We caught up with Peter Morén via email, and talked to him about his album.
GLONO: The songs on The Last Tycoon have been years in the making. Was it a conscious effort to release them now, in the wake of Peter Bjorn & John’s success?
Peter Morén: Not really. I just had a couple of months to concentrate on touring and promoting the songs now, before Peter Bjorn & John becomes my main focus again in 2009.
GLONO: Do you worry that, with your distinct voice and the ability for people to maybe flippantly refer to this as “Peter from Peter Bjorn & John,” The Last Tycoon won’t fully escape the shadow your day job? Do you feel like it would have been easier to release this under an alias?
PM: I’m not much for aliases. Especially since the band is using our own names, it would feel cowardly and weird to use an alias now for something that is even more personal. But of course people might have expectations because of my name that I obviously won’t fulfill, since I’d find it stupid to release a solo record in the style of the band when the band is still very much a band.
GLONO: In another sense, do you feel that The Last Tycoon was a conscious counterpunch to Writer’s Block?
PM: I did absolutely consciously go for something different. I had a bunch of songs that I felt would benefit from more stripped down arrangements, more in the style in which I write them at home. The guitar arrangements (on Tycoon) are pretty self-contained and there is more finger-picking and folkier settings. I also felt liberated to do wordier, less poppy songs. I didn’t see the album as a proclamation of any sorts, I just did what I wanted to do.
But in the long run I do think that both the band and myself will benefit by people knowing that we are much more than a one-trick pony, even though you will realize that as much by listening to our first two albums and [Peter Bjorn & John’s] upcoming instrumental album. We always try to change things around and make it fresh and interesting for ourselves. People’s expectations are one thing, but the reason you are doing music is for your own sake.
GLONO: When you write songs, do you categorize them according to different projects?
PM: I used to write everything for the band, and the first of couple of songs that ended up on this album were first aimed at the band. But when I knew that I was going to make a solo album I wrote the rest specifically for the record, which obviously colored the route they took. I know now that I can write for different things, which is very liberating. But usually I write the song first and then afterwards decide if it would suit the band’s more intellectual way of working or my own rawer, direct approach.
GLONO: Tycoon is loosely based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel (a first-person look at the death of the first golden era of cinema). With the slow crumbling of media entities worldwide, how does the subject matter seem relevant?
PM: Basically at first I just liked the way it sounded and found it pretty funny to pin this grandiose, pretentious title to this homey, low-key collection of songs — sort of a marriage of opposites, which is pretty funny. But the story of this media mogul has this ring of the end of an era to it, which I find is relevant to today and our situation as well. In the book it’s about the shift between silent and talking movies. Now everything is on a grander scale of course. Everything is changing when it comes to media and especially music.
The tycoon of the story has a hard time combining his career ambitions and success with a satisfying personal life, which I think is pretty common in all kind of fields including my own. They’re just pretty essential things. But all of my songs are written from a personal perspective about my experiences, not at all about the book.
GLONO: Does the dynamic change recording a solo album? Do you feel more comfortable having been in the recording environment or is it a learning curve that starts from scratch?
PM: I’ve obviously done 3 albums with the band before I started doing this record, but I still felt like I started from scratch because I wanted to work in a very different way. For instance, I recorded all of the vocal and guitar tracks live and then decided if any overdubs were needed. So everything had to be pretty much focused on the vocals and guitars, since you couldn’t take those away. With the band we create a more produced backing track and work with the vocals last. Obviously I had a lot of help on the solo record from my friends Tobias [Fröberg] and Daniel [Varjo], who co-produced and recorded it. They know a lot more about equipment and technical things than me.
It was still hard to know that all of the main decisions were up to me. I had to make my choices and couldn’t blame anyone else. But I’m very pleased that I had the guts to do it and I’m pleased with the results and I definitively learned a lot.
GLONO: Do you plan on continuing with solo material, or was this the purging of songs and a concept that has lingered?
PM: It was a concept that has lingered and I feel pretty fulfilled having done it. On the other hand it’s been a very positive experience, especially the freedom I have felt in the live shows. So now I definitely see being solo as a long-term thing, which I need, for both my personal health and the band’s health. I write a lot of songs so it makes sense. Having said that I have no idea when the next album will be recorded. Maybe in 5 years. I feel no rush, though I already have a couple of songs for it. I think it’s gonna be more of a rock album than this one.