To describe the Swedish indie-pop duo JJ (comprised of Joakim Benon and Elin Kastlander) as simply eccentric would be a gross understatement. Aside from maintaining an air of mystery for the first few years of the band’s career, JJ successfully pioneered a music style that would have been considered by many, well, absurd. Mashing together gently spoken and airy indie-pop melodies with flashy hip-hop samples and lyrical subject matter often associated with the latter genre on jj No.2 and jj No.3, the duo managed to muddle the stereotype waters, transforming genre traditions to convey their excessive indulgence and egotistical personas into honest, depressive and guilt-ridden narratives.
On this third album, V, JJ finds itself growing, and not just with having finally capitalized the band’s name and going Roman numeral. Hip-hop themes lie in the background and reveal themselves occasionally, but the album finds JJ predominantly stripping their music back. Nowhere will you find anything remotely like the sampling of Lil Wayne’s Lollipop on jj no. 2’s Ecstasy. Instead, Benon and Kastlander rely less on their usual artistic reinterpretation of aggressive rap-centric lyrics, and instead explore how their respective musical capabilities have grown to help synthesize their charming yet bittersweet stories.
The album title opener, V, begins with ominous instrumental effects, breaking into glockenspiel arpeggios and a ringing metallic chime. The progression transitions almost seamlessly into the grandiose Dynasti. At first, it appears bright and uplifting, with surging orchestral string melodies guiding the listener. However, Kastlander’s voice dramatically emerges from the musical swell of thundering drumbeats, offering dark and heavy lyrics: “And if I die today/somehow I know I’ll get a brand new start.” Already, the listener has become enraptured in JJ’s emotional reverie, falling into see where internal conflict of Kastlander’s (or the narrator’s) relationship traverses throughout the album.
Dean & Me and When I Need You continue with the message established in Dynasti, tugging at the listener’s heartstrings via Kastlander’s narratives, although at the same time, causing the audience to derive a skeptical view towards the situation. On the former, she admits her insobriety in slurry yet clear vocals, while on the latter claims, “I don’t know how these drinks keep coming by” as she details hazily a monologue to her lover. With each, an emotional buildup ensues near the end, the vocals and accompaniment swelling in a manner familiar to those who have been involved in those awkward and upsetting bar fights with a partner. Kastlander jars the listeners with her frustration as she cries, “You hate to see me leave, but you love to watch me go,” the wave of emotion enveloping her audience as they are finally left to contemplate the narrative and question the narrator.
Fågelsången, continues the relationship dilemma. Rife with ecstatic samples of bird sounds and an island vibe alongside the African drumbeats and twang of guitars skillfully executed by Benon. Kastlander claims immediately at the break, “I need you, I don’t need you/Oh no, I never said oh no/I need you,” further driving home the confusion the narrator had experienced all throughout the first half of the album by clashing the depressive lyrics against the song’s upbeat tropical ambience.
Despite V’s evidence of growth and energy throughout the first half of the album, excitement drains during the latter half. Kastlander’s vocals are still emotionally pinpricking on each song, consistently dwelling on the subject matter of relationship/post-relationship difficulties on tracks like Full and Be Here Now. Eventually though, just like hearing a friend complain about their ex for three months straight after the split, it gets tiresome, with JJ offering little else to entice listeners to continue engaging with Kastlander’s morose tales after the first handful. This is possibly the reason JJ’s rap-esque styles appear only later in the album, with little success. While Fågelsången managed to effectively incorporate auto-tuned hooks into that track, falling right into place alongside the harmonious cacophony of sounds, the closing auto-tune section on Inner Lights seems awkward and unnecessary. Similarly, Hold Me and I, which lyrically draws on the aforementioned hip-hop stylings, both take a stab at JJ’s older glory, but in the end detract from the songs’ success. The tracks have introduced JJ’s artistic rap angle at such a late stage in the tracklist, piling on top of the already burnt-out lyrical matter. As a result, it comes across forced, as if they’ve moved on musically, but are still trying to retain their older fans.
JJ manages to shake things up slightly at the very end with All Ways, Always, driven by a distorted, ‘80s-reminiscent guitar riff, perking listeners up from the saddening drone of dream-pop synth melodies. While the vocals refer to the emotional relationship troubles yet again, musically Kastlander takes a more aggressive approach, swaggering with confidence in her musical steps rather than lying pitifully in her turmoil as she had on the previous tracks. With the album ending on a brighter note, the listener is given a somewhat more hopeful view towards the duo, with at least the façade that something new has grown and might develop into something concrete on the next record.