[23 April 2014]
When you’re more than twenty years into a career that has spanned three decades and two different groups it can be a bit difficult finding your own, distinct solo voice. At the very least, the confidence required to step out on your own in an attempt to make a declarative statement that announces your arrival as a relevant solo artist. Regardless of the quality of the new work itself, it will always be compared to your previous projects and held to a certain standard not generally associated with debut albums from solo artists who are otherwise largely unknown.
Having been in a previously successful group certainly helps in raising one’s profile, however. But with an elevated profile comes a certain level of expectation not generally experienced by solo artists striking out on their own with a debut release. Regardless of whether or not said expectations are met, this “new” artist will find themselves fighting against an unfair standard of quality (regardless of how dubious it may be) that may ultimately adversely affect an otherwise perfectly fine album.
Such is the case with Nina Persson’s debut, Animal Heart. Perhaps best known as the voice behind and face of the ubiquitous soft disco-pop hit “Lovefool”, Persson’s work with the Cardigans was very much of its time (the mid-1990s) and representative of a sound and style generally associated with like-minded pop groups originating in Sweden. Her angelic purring and coquettish delivery on “Lovefool” and its accompanying video helped make the band an MTV/VH1 staple following its release nearly 18 years ago.
Since then, the Cardigans have released a handful of subsequent albums with the last coming in 2006 and, in 1997, Persson formed A Camp, a group whose last album appeared in 2009. For the last five years, Persson has been more or less quiet. With the release of Animal Heart, that silence is appropriately broken with her first foray into solo artist territory. Employing a number of musical and lyrical tropes associated with her previous groups, Persson nearly effortlessly enters the solo arena with an album of vaguely electronic adult contemporary songs delivered in a huskier, raspier purr.
While time has reshaped her vocal cords, it has done nothing to lessen her knack for a good, simple melody. Throughout, Persson purrs her way through stylistically similar tracks of subtle keyboards, faint traces of electronica, and pristine production that would not sound out of place as the backdrop to a light-hearted romantic comedy or a trip to your dentist’s office. By no means a backhanded compliment, simply an indication that what Persson does here is very good at what it is: lightweight 21st century “adult” music.
Relying heavily on the contemporary singer-songwriter vibe for the album’s first half, tracks like “Burning Bridges For Fuel”, “Clip Your Wings” (with its vaguely inspirational lyrics about “being what you want to be”), and “Jungle” convey a more mature sound from an artist clearly comfortable in her own skin. Unfortunately, much of the first half of the album is lyrically lacking, something one doesn’t generally like to see in a set that is all about the sentiments being conveyed. Despite this setback, Persson’s melodic gifts shine on “Burning Bridges For Fuel” which carries a chorus melody that would not have been out of place on any number of early period Elton John albums, ably tracing a fairly predictable ascending piano figure and reflecting on a past that saw her invoking the action of the track’s title.
Beyond this, the only other track of note on the album’s first half is the title track with its icy synths, pulsating bass, skeletal guitars, and minor-key bridge replete with synthy squiggles and other assorted atmospherics that would not sound stylistically out of place on any number of later-period ABBA albums. Overall, it’s a false representation of what the remainder of the album will hold, clearly aiming for single status and, due to its sterility and rather simplistic lyrical imagery, misses the mark, becoming ultimately more forgettable than anything else.
Following a brief interlude appropriately titled “Digestif”, the back half of the album picks up nicely with heavier beats, edgier bass and an overall grittier sound that makes the most of her solo venture and finds Persson making more of a declarative, individualistic statement separate from her previous work. From “Food For The Beast” through to the closing, plaintive “Sometimes”, Persson steps the proceedings up a notch or two and, in the process, the overall quality and memorability of the album itself.
While the first half is essentially forgettable fluff, the back half plays more to Persson’s strengths and, with “Forgot To Tell You”, results in a pop gem. With its sing-song melody, restrained guitar work, minimalist synth lines and plaintive electric piano figure, “Forgot To Tell You” is the highlight of an otherwise pleasant enough, thought ultimately fairly forgettable, album. Featuring melancholic lyrics delivered with an appropriate mix of her Cardigans-era coo and her more weathered rasp, it carries a definite, immediate melodic hook lacking in the other songs present and a chorus that doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to be anything other than what it is: effortless.
Overall, Animal Heart plays as a gentle wisp of an album: a warm summer breeze in early spring; enjoyed in the moment, yet largely forgotten after having passed.