If Johnossi’s Air Is Free EP showed anything, it’s that their venture of breaking out of their native Sweden might have some push behind it. It was by no means a perfect release, fragmented and jumping around styles with little through line, but for indie songs with the power to break into a wider market, something that the title track eventually did, the duo’s big ambitions look to be gathering steam. The next step on their journey is where Blood Jungle comes in, their fifth full-length overall but the first blessed by some international groundswell, taking two of the tracks and all of the eclecticism of their last EP and integrating them into a wider canvas.
It’s not really surprising then, that Blood Jungle is a considerable improvement on Air Is Free, forging connections between some of the more disparate elements and creating a fuller picture of Johnossi as a band. And that fuller picture still consists of running between a handful of different styles spanning indie, pop-rock, blues-rock and classic rock, all tied together by John Engelbert’s frayed howl of a voice. And credit to them, while they’re no closer to finding any sort of stylistic definition, Johnossi have an impressive elasticity that means that, whatever they do, they can mostly stick the landing. It’s impressive just how much they can get away with, too – the snarling riff-rock of Weak Spots; the glossy, widescreen indie-pop of Freeman; the propulsive pop-rock of Hey Kiddo with a burst of whistle that already sounds primed to soundtrack any number of car adverts; all are pulled off with a level of clout that betrays a technical skill beyond the widely-accepted indie boundaries. And though their pick-and-mix approach doesn’t always pay off – On A Roll feels too safe and underplayed to really have an effect, and Hands has a go at something akin to a stripped-back version of early Mumford And Sons that’s just as tepid as it sounds – it all manages to feel natural and never at the mercy of too much studio trickery. The synthetic elements are noticeable, like the synths and steady drum machines that open War / Rain, but without being too intrusive, giving the duo the room to open up into a more garage-rock or classic rock-influenced sound, like on Weak Spots or Got Your Gun. It’s a refreshing change of pace from pristine, bargain-bin indie that Johnossi manage to incorporate into pretty much every song here.
But while the instrumental elements of Blood Jungle remain its most consistent facet, the lyrical content is where things start to get a bit shaky. Johnossi are nothing if not interesting songwriters – the references to Christina Aguilera and the 1997 Kevin Costner film The Postman speak for themselves – but it’s clear that they’re trying to say something on this album, and there are points where they become tangled up in their own intentions. Most of the time, they stick to more general, human topics, and they’re usually fine here – Air Is Free‘s message of living life by your own accord is a solid one and works surprising well with its bed of sunken horns, and the ‘live while we’re young’ lyrics of Hey Kiddo are actually matched by an instrumental with a suitable amount of energy for a change. Where things start going wrong is when Johnossi cast their net out a bit wider into territory that really doesn’t go well. The first is Tall Dark Man, which, through its stream of non-sequiturs, seems to talk about waiting for death to come as a result of the ills of the human race, but lines like “You know the Queen, she is a lizard” are the sort of straight-faced conspiracy theory jumping that was embarrassing when B.o.B made Flatline and is still embarrassing now. By far the worst, though, is Hands, a track that attempts to tackle the topic of police brutality from the perspective of both the victim and the police officer. It’s an interesting concept, but not only is a played with in a jaunty way that whatever little condemnation is present is rendered even more neutered, but it drops the issue halfway through, instead coasting on the mantra of “Fuck them haters, we don’t care / Put your hands up in the air”. Not only does this imply that Johnossi have a serious lack of understanding of the reality of this issue, but the way it’s cast aside with such casual disinterest is borderline insulting to what could’ve been a genuinely poignant, original take on the subject.
It’s a serious blemish on how Blood Jungle is viewed as a whole, but really, the threshold for how much enjoyment can be gotten from this album is the same as with most indie albums, where the lyrics take a backseat to the hooks and melodies. In that respect, Blood Jungle is a fine listen, connecting a lot more than it doesn’t with a few tracks that could see Johnossi earning the amount of success they have in the home country on a worldwide scale. Looking past some of the more questionable moments is advised (ignore Hands entirely, basically), but don’t be surprised to hear more of Johnossi in the future. They’ve got something good that could really work for them.
For fans of: Arctic Monkeys, The White Stripes, Kaleo
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Blood Jungle’ by Johnossi is released on 17th February on Universal Music / Polydor Records.