Friday, 11 April 2008

If You Want To Destroy My Sweater

Not that Shades Of Caruso is eating itself or anything, but this post owes its existence to something Admiral Neck posted recently. When he described The Cardigans as “Masticator’s favourite band”, I realised – perhaps for the first time – that they indeed were that very thing. My most favouritest band in the whole world. I had been debating whether or not to buy their new Best Of album and this made my mind up.

There are three types of “best of” albums. The first is a selection of hits for general consumption, aimed perhaps at the casual fan, someone who might not have all the albums, or who might have liked the singles but never got around to the long-players. This is the preserve of the most famous acts, those whose very name sells the album. Then there’s that recent-ish phenomenon, the contractual-obligation best-of album, including all the group’s hits and a sneaky couple of non-hits – new tracks to make the fans who do own the albums fork out for the new product. (Presumably, now that those fans can just download the new tracks, this type is obsolescent at best.)

The third is what you might call the “document” best-of album and this is strictly for the fans. Oh sure, a person might find him or herself humming, say, “Lovefool” one day and think, “Dang, I sure do like that song! I expect that band wrote some other winners in their time. I wonder if there’s any kind of greatest hits collection available!” Well and good. But this type of record is not designed to win new fans: the tracks are not artfully ordered into a pleasing sequence, and the biggest hits are not packed at the front to catch the attention of browsers. It’s simply a chronological history of the band, with a handful of the most popular tracks from each album.

Best Of The Cardigans belongs in this category. I still didn’t need to own it, of course – I could have created my own Best Of The Cardigans CD or playlist, if I wasn’t bothered about artwork and liner notes. But it pleased me that the band had taken time to create what they saw as the definitive record of their career, from the early cheeriness of Emmerdale and Life to the recent introspections of Super Extra Gravity, and omitted sales-grabbing new tracks. This was an album for me. I would have felt bad had I not bought it.

The first, mid-1990s Cardigans recordings are perky. Boy, are they ever perky. It would not be a stretch to say they are all about the perky. When I first fell for the band at university, my girlfriend sniffed that she found them altogether too twee and upbeat (although she later admitted that her antipathy was largely a response to my saying that Pavement sounded like Phil Collins). I certainly understood this point of view, especially as a 19-year-old wallowing in grungey gloom, but I found it impossible to resist the buoyant likes of “Rise and Shine”, “Sick and Tired” and “Carnival”:

The best-of collection includes five tracks from the UK release of Life (1995), with “After All…” and “Daddy’s Car” alongside their three breakout hits. (The British version was a mixture of tracks from the Swedish releases Emmerdale [1994] and Life.) The whirling, flutey “Gordon’s Gardenparty” would have been my pick, but “Daddy’s Car” is an apposite choice for the Best Of – as the liner notes say, the band has now played every place mentioned in the flight-of-fancy chorus, which they wrote while wielding a map of Europe and a pin:

From Luxembourg to Rome
From Berlin to the moon
From Paris to Lausanne
From Athens to the sun
Our car became a spacecraft
Flashing through the world
Crashed down in Amsterdam

Although Life made the Cardigans stars in Europe and Japan, it was First Band On The Moon (1996) that broke out in America and gave the band their only US hit, “Lovefool”. I’ve always thought of FBOTM as the sound of a hesitant band, a band that wants to take a new direction but isn’t sure how to get there. Certainly the likes of “Been It” and “Losers”, the other tracks mined from this period, show a marked decline in perkiness from the likes of “Rise and Shine”:

Look at all these losers
You find them everywhere
They’re fucked up and annoying
But somehow you seem to care
It’s easier to laugh
But something makes you stick around
You can’t watch from above
And keep your ten toes in the sand

You wish that you were special
I’m just like you

Close your eyes
That’ll be the day you’ll find those lies
Fold your ears
That’ll be the day that you will hear

“Lovefool” itself is not the sunshine-charged bundle of fun its reputation might suggest. The aggressively infectious melody may be seductive, but “Dear, I fear we’re facing a problem/You love me no longer, I know” isn’t exactly “I just called to say I love you”. The song partly owed its success to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and its lovers sound as doomed as young Signor Montague and that Capulet lass. Here’s the little-seen – in the US at least – DiSproutface-free version of the video for “Lovefool”:

Melancholy a-go-go, I think you’ll agree, but the song’s undeniably upbeat tune – as well as the appearance of “Carnival” on the soundtrack of another movie around that time, Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery – cemented the band’s status. Although First Band On The Moon went platinum in the US and sold a more than respectable 2.5 million worldwide, its failure to provide a suitably radio-friendly follow-up to “Lovefool” meant the US, in particular, came to see the Cardigans as a one-perky-hit wonder.

It was the next album, Gran Turismo (1998), that really switched me on to how exciting the Cardigans could be. (Strangely, the progression on Best Of The Cardigans is interrupted here by the inclusion of “War”, their contribution to the soundtrack of A Life Less Ordinary. A fine song, but it belongs with neither the haunted torchsongs of First Band On The Moon nor the sparkly, electrified Gran Turismo. When tracks are commissioned for film soundtracks the desires of the filmmakers naturally supersede those of the band, which means that you inevitably end up with something that sounds a bit like a James Bond theme. The bonus disc – of which more later – includes an earlier, rejected version of “War” to illustrate this, so I guess this appears on the main disc to avoid a clash.)

Almost every Cardigans album has a terrific lead single and Gran Turismo’s is the best of them all. Armed with what the band cheerfully admit is a “slightly annoying” riff, “My Favourite Game” stormed every chart in the world and was No. 1 absolutely everywhere. Unfortunately that was only in my head. To this day I don’t understand why “My Favourite Game” was not the global smash that made the Cardigans gigantenormohuge. Surely it can’t be because the video was – ludicrously – banned by American MTV for encouraging dangerous driving.

This might still be my favourite Cardigans song. Peter Svensson’s irresistible riff, the relentless, chugging rhythm (it’s one of the only Cardigans records you can dance to), the playfulness, Nina Persson’s off-kilter despair in the line “My heart is black and my body is blue”. I especially like the way it inverted (subverted?) virtually every rock song made in the 1990s by having a loud verse and a quiet chorus.

The second single, “Erase/Rewind”, a haughty, knowing slice of pure pop, was a UK top 10 hit (somewhat unbelievably, “My Favourite Game” made it only to No. 14) and the band also include the anthemic live favourite “Hanging Around” and the woozy gospel of “Higher” on Best Of The Cardigans. It’s a shame there’s no room for album opener “Paralyzed”, with its stark warning of the vertiginous emotional turmoil to come on Gran Turismo:

This is where your sanity gives in
And love begins
Never lose your grip, don’t trip, don’t fall
You’ll lose it all
The sweetest way to die...

But I guess it’s too much of an opener to be stuck in the middle of the tracklisting. I also have an enduring crush on the odd and sombre “Junk Of The Hearts”, but these four tracks are a fine sample of the Gran Turismo period.

After a hiatus, during which Persson released a country-tinged, Mark Linkous-assisted solo album as A Camp, came Long Gone Before Daylight (2002). For this record, the Cardigans dispensed with the services of their longtime producer Tore Johansson and co-produced the album themselves alongside Per Sunding. The LGBD tracks here are kicked off by “For What It’s Worth”, which is a perfectly pleasant ballad but without doubt their weakest lead single. This is compensated by the follow-up singles, the soaring “You’re The Storm” and the penetrating “Live And Learn” – the latter, with its frank, insightful lyrics, being the closest the band came to a US hit since “Lovefool” when it cropped up on Grey’s Anatomy.

Also included is “Communication”, which was never a single but was voted best Cardigans song of all time by a Swedish radio poll, it says here. It’s certainly one of their best ballads – the liner notes say it’s the song Svensson is most proud of writing – and I’d like to think that it received such high Scandinavian approval because its lyrics crystallise what so much of the Cardigans’ output is about: what Raymond Carver might call What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Love.

For 27 years I’ve been trying
To believe and confide in
Different people I found
Some of them got closer than others
And some wouldn’t even bother
And then you came around

I didn’t really know what to call you
You didn’t know me at all
But I was happy to explain
I never really knew how to move you
So I tried to intrude through
The little holes in your veins
And I saw you

But that’s not an invitation
That’s all I get
If this is communication
I disconnect
I’ve seen you, I know you
But I don’t know how to connect
So I disconnect

The difficulty of communicating with others, even – or especially – those we know intimately, has always been a theme of Persson’s lyrics. Even in the early, supposedly perky days – “I will never know/’Cause you will never show”; “Love me, love me, say that you love me/Fool me, fool me, go on and fool me” – this ironic inspiration has sparked much of her most memorable writing. Long Gone Before Daylight is also the album on which Persson’s voice truly comes into its own. Perhaps encouraged by her solo project or by the change of producer, she finds an extraordinary timbre on these songs – rich, plaintive, occasionally tremulous, somehow more resonant, with none of the brittleness heard around the time of First Band On The Moon.

Frankly the band could have picked any quartet of tracks from Long Gone Before Daylight and the choice would have delighted me. Really, though, “For What It’s Worth” should have been replaced by “Please Sister” with its heartbreaking chorus, the shimmering “Lead Me Into The Night” or, above all, “And Then You Kissed Me”, surely the centrepiece of the whole record. Long Gone Before Daylight is the quintessential Cardigans album. It sold fewer than one-sixth the number of copies that Gran Turismo had.

It was lucky, then, that the band were given the opportunity to make Super Extra Gravity (2005), which reunited them with Johansson. In case you hadn’t realised how much the Cardigans had changed in 10 years, the cover of Super Extra Gravity – while echoing that of Life – made it clear.

In many ways a twin to LGBD, not least because it too showed disappointing sales, Super Extra Gravity easily bettered it for a lead single with “I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need To Be Nicer”, which has another one of those wonderfully irritating riffs, mordantly witty lyrics, and a terrifically stylish video.

It was, emphatically, a massive flop. Why? I rather suspect that the band have been handicapped by finally finding their groove. The last two albums might have been their best, but unlike “Carnival” and “Lovefool” their stirring, polished pop and sweetly unsettling ballads are just not considered radio-friendly enough. I think I heard “…Fine Wine” on the radio once, and never saw the video on TV – and surely, even if they’re not ideal for radio, the classic line-up of one hot chick and four Sleeperblokes has always been telly gold. Gold! But no. The planned second single “Diamonds (Don’t Blame Your Daughter)”, a lovely song with spiky lyrics about taking responsibility for your own life, was semi-cancelled in the UK (released only as a download); “Godspell”, with excoriating Persson lyrics that Richard Dawkins would fully endorse, could have been one of the band’s best singles but never even made it out of the blocks.

Disc one ends with a cover of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House”, a collaboration with Tom Jones that was the best thing on his mainly godawful duets album Reload. I’m fond of it, but like “War” it doesn’t fit with the rest of the disc and would have been better on disc two. The bonus disc is full of B-sides, outtakes and oddities, and for the non-musician it gives a real insight into how albums are made. I’m not na├»ve enough to think that a band write 12 songs, go into a studio, record them and – hey presto! – here’s your new album, but I did tend to assume that a band would know roughly how a given song would sound while they were writing it.

The various disorienting but weirdly familiar demo versions and “first tries” here put me straight: “After All…”, “Losers”, “War”, “(If You Were) Less Like Me” which became Super Extra Gravity’s “Good Morning Joan”. An early, noodling instrumental called “Laika” eventually evolved into “Junk Of The Hearts” and there are two iterations of “Hold Me”, one of which appeared on Long Gone Before Daylight as a UK/US bonus track. There’s also a sweetly revealing anecdote in the liner notes about how drummer Bengt Lagerberg insisted that “Give Me Your Eyes” should not only be included on Super Extra Gravity but should be the first single, contrary to the votes of all his evidently amused bandmates.

Persson said in a recent interview that the Cardigans have been offered the opportunity to release a best-of album previously, but always had enough material to refuse in favour of making a new album. This time they didn’t. With the band “taking time off” and Persson working on a new A Camp record, there’s an obvious conclusion to draw. I’ve tried to fool myself into thinking that they’ve peaked, and that if they didn’t release any more material I wouldn’t mind too much, but without success. Not only do I hope they’re around for years to come, I hope they come up with the new “Lovefool”, another huge global hit that belatedly elevates them to superstar status. Don’t tell me they don’t deserve it.

1 comment:

Admiral Neck said...

"she later admitted that her antipathy was largely a response to my saying that Pavement sounded like Phil Collins"

There is something very very wrong with your brain, you hater! Commence antipathy towards Masticator!