When jj accompanied the unveiling of V a few months ago with the announcement that they were now JJ, my heart sank. Was this it? Were we about to get a pukeworthy Mature Album from a Swedish duo that had made their name off a flip of Weezy’s “Lollipop?” Were they going to replace all the hip-hop references and tongue-in-cheek platitudes with… sincerity? By nearly all accounts, the pair’s output had dipped in quality since their stunning debut n° 2 dropped in 2009: the follow-up LP, n° 3, failed to match its predecessor’s melodic sensibilities, and the Kills mixtape was something of a fan-pleasing throwaway, full of odd riffs on mainstream songs that were pleasant but not breathtaking in the same way as n° 2. Initially anonymous, they even eventually revealed their real names to be Joakim Benon and Elin Kastlander, cracking the mystique that helped build their initial wave of hype. V very well could have been a pathetic whimper of an album, a relic from a group that’s ancient by internet standards.
You see that score up there? V is not a whimper. V is a bang. V is the sound of JJ wrestling with their past successes, a “fuck you” to the haters and a love letter to anyone who’s ever had a summer soundtracked by n° 2.
The clues start with the title. V isn’t their fifth album; it’s their third. By their numbering, jj n° 1 and n° 4 were both singles. However, the album art is what gives it all away: the hand gesture for V and 2 are the same. JJ have been living in the shadow of n° 2 for five years now, so they finally turned their funhouse mirrors inwards and crafted a Mature Album in a way that only they could, refracting their own past work through the same broken prism that they’ve spent years pulling pop and rap through.
If you think I’m just being a delusional fanboy with the 2/V thing, don’t worry; the music backs it up almost immediately. The opening title track begins with an ominous drone before familiar chimes waft through the air, a sample from n° 2’s opening seconds. When it’s quickly cut off, the triumphant “Dynasti” begins with an elaborate intro of majestic strings and massive drums before Kastlander rings out: “If I die today/ Somehow I know/ I get a brand new start. ” This is definitely a new, hi-fi JJ, but it’s not overproduced. It’s just a studio take on 2012’s High Summer EP, with the relatively sparse mix filled out by soft reverb and low end. “All White Everything” booms like nothing else in the JJ catalogue, and tracks like “Fågelsången” and “I” sound like updated versions of Air France’s or Memory Tapes’ ambitious, homemade pop. Since the lo-fi sound of the Orchid Tapes crew inherited the bedroom baton a couple years ago, the production here feels refreshingly anachronistic.
Kastlander’s approach has changed over the years too, morphing from the shy chanteuse of their early days into the force of nature that we get here. The way she turns a Travolta line from Face/Off (“You hate to see me leave/ But love to watch me go”) into a siren wail in “When I Need You” is nothing short of incredible. Of course, one of the appeals of JJ has always been the lyrics, a mishmash of stolen rap lines, drug references, and cheesy clichés that coalesce into an inexplicably emotional whole. On this front, V delivers in spades, often referencing n° 2 in satisfying ways. “Ecstasy” receives a grown-up revision with “Innerlight:” “When I’m up in the club/ I won’t be on them drugs/ But if you show me love/ You might get a hug/ But if you don’t/ Then I won’t care at all.” “Dean & Me,” a rather obvious companion to their debut’s closer “Me & Dean,” revisits and rekindles its drunken, doomed romance in the same breath as a Drake quote. The hip-hop grounding remains, but it’s now accompanied by a whole range of other references: Foreigner in “I,” Leonard Cohen in “Fågelsången,” oldies cut “Dream a Little Dream of Me” in “When I Need You,” and probably a host of others that I missed. I’m not just giving them credit for making allusions though, because the point is never the sources themselves. It’s how Kastlander’s voice glues her intensely referential world together, an affective knife quietly slipped between the ribs when you’re not looking. In a recent FADER interview, Benon described the events leading up to the album as “Loss… loss, loss, loss. Of shit. Of people,” and it shines through the artifice. They’ll have you singing “It’s all Greek to me” like it means something.
The record isn’t without its flaws though. “Full” never really digs into the melodies that make JJ work, and the intro to “Hold Me,” with its parodic use of pitched-down rap vocals, sounds like a Salem joke without a punchline (though, thankfully the rest of the tune is solid). The second half of the record is just weaker, lacking the continuous emotional gut punch of the first. And naturally, if you couldn’t stand n° 2 or don’t like songs about mercurial young love and cocaine, then you probably won’t find much here to change your mind. However, I’m saying all this as a way of tempering just how amazing it is that this record even exists. Having effectively kickstarted this recent wave of underground pop that draws meaning from vapid signifiers, a very compelling argument could be made for JJ prefiguring the rise of the outside-looking-in rap of Yung Lean and the empty uncanny valley of the vocal side of PC Music. With V, JJ have become one of the few acts to creatively survive 2009’s Summer of Chill, and this album could very well become a how-to for living once the hype has dried up for this new generation: look at what you’ve done and start again. Besides, for all its warts, all is forgiven by the final song.
“All Ways, Always” is the song that JJ were born to make, a tour de force instrumentally and lyrically. Over a simple, roaring guitar hook that crosses Springsteen with Springfield, Kastlander outlines their mission statement in the simplest terms possible before a jawdropping climax that’s as fleeting as the duo themselves. I’d quote the whole song here, but the last lines should do the trick just fine, cutting right to core of what this “pop” thing is all about: “This is what I do and it’s all I know/ Don’t care where you’re from, don’t care who you know/ Don’t care where you go, because I will always do what I feel/ And you, feeling what I do, you ask me what it is when I don’t have a clue/ And I guess you made me do it/ And I was made to do it” JJ know that they’re weird, but now they know they’re weird for you. From the beginning, they’ve always felt a bit like an inside joke, a labor of love from two friends who the world just happened to peer in on one day. Not so here. Even if JJ never reach these dizzying heights again, at least we have this, a document so full of warmth that it’s practically collapsing in on itself, reaching out to whoever will lend a sympathetic ear all ways, always.