The comeback of Robyn and the emergence of Lykke Li might have threatened Nina Persson’s supremacy as Swedish pop royalty, but Persson’s nature has traditionally been to change directions frequently enough to avoid becoming passé. Significantly, she admirably avoided trying to repeat the success of “Lovefool”, her kitschy 1996 hit with the Cardigans, despite that to do so would have likely paid off big in the short term. Instead, the cold electronic edge of follow-up Gran Turismo and the spacey folk of Long Gone Before Daylight applied the Cardigans’ melodic sensibilities to other parts of the rock/pop spectrum and in doing so provided a more meditative context for Persson’s often dark lyrics.
The year 2001 certainly provided a fulcrum point for Persson as she participated in two Mark Linkous projects, which situated her far from her proven sugary potential. Both as a back-up singer on Sparklehorse’s It’s a Wonderful Life and as lead singer/songwriter on the Linkous-produced A Camp, Persson hit a career high and discovered new musical directions and impulses she’s seemingly chased ever since. Unfortunately, other than a single slide guitar contribution, Mark Linkous is uninvolved with Colonia, the second Camp album. His signature is sorely missed.
A Camp’s self-titled debut benefited from Linkous’s trademark askew country sound, which surrounded vocals with ethereal keys and strings but left room within the album’s expanses for the individual elements to make distinct sonic impacts. The Chamberlain and Mellotron tracks on “Algebra” and the initially wordless chorus of “Angel of Sadness” were just two of the many subtle, memorable touches on that wonderfully arranged and mixed album, which never once felt hurried.
Conversely, on Colonia many songs are overly adorned, creating a layer of sheen that might have figured quite well into an old-school Cardigans record, but do not quite fit A Camp’s current mode. “The Crowning” is a bombastic opener that starts in a low-key manner but develops into an exhausting mélange after the first chorus. To begin an album with an anthem is a tricky prospect, particularly when its momentum does not carry over into the following track. Single “Stronger Than Jesus” borrows liberally from Aimee Mann’s “How Am I Different” and features an unnecessarily insistent vocal delivery. “Love Has Left the Room” begins in a girl-group groove very familiar to Persson fans but then fussily includes some sort of effect or synthesizer resembling the sound of a spaceship landing in an old science fiction film—wholly unneeded in an already busy mix heavy on backing vocals. “My America” is another anthem that purports to signify a lot but is ultimately undermined by its own anthemic tendencies.
“Eau De Colonia”, a rare ambient interlude that would actually do good to last longer than half a minute, kicks off the final third of the album, which is its strongest portion. This part of the album largely does away with the excesses that plague its earlier sections. Persson has some time to breathe, and her voice is a much better fit for these looser, more spacious songs. Closer “The Weed Had Got There First” is the album’s highlight, a song that unfolds horizontally, its individual instrumental elements building consecutively rather than concurrently.
For their next outing, Persson and company (Niclas Frisk and Shudder to Think guitar god Nathan Larson) should take a cue from P.J. Harvey, another female singer-songwriter who appeared on It’s a Wonderful Life. With last year’s White Chalk, Harvey took a bold risk by shifting her voice into a higher register and experimenting with instrumentation and a production style previously unassociated with her brand of rock. That risk paid off largely because it had no precedent in Harvey’s career and assumed a sort of stark timelessness. White Chalk was a unified set of songs fully committed to the stylistic shift, and as such would have even been an interesting failure. Colonia plays it safe by gathering together various aspects of the Cardigans/Camp catalogue and adorning them to the brim with pretty, but unsatisfying decoration. The result is a benign stasis that is less than we have come to expect from the normally fresh Nina Persson.