[19 September 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
So unfashionable has the evolution of the Cardigans been over the last dozen years, that it’s no surprise that that the ever fickle pop audiences passed the likeable Swedish quintet by after a brief flirtation with mainstream success. If only it didn’t happen so suddenly. It seems just like yesterday that the blonde-haired Nina Persson won over countless indie rock fans with that winsome smile of hers on the cover of 1995’s Life, and we all remember how the band pulled off one of the most pleasant surprises of the 1990s, shooting to instant stardom with the impeccable single “Lovefool” and the superb album First Band on the Moon, but those days of smart, tongue-in-cheek pop music and ironic Black Sabbath covers are long gone, as is the band’s Statseside fame, as their sudden turn toward the serious on 1998’s Gran Turismo failed to click with audiences, relegating the Cardigans to sporadic mentions on “one hit wonders” TV specials and plays on VH1 Classic.
A shame, really, as the Cardigans have persevered, tinkering with hard-edged rock, electronica, introspective singer-songwriter fare, and country rock, and in the wake of the decent but inconsistent Gran Turismo and 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight, the band has managed to release a good number of excellent singles, unbeknownst by many people outside Sweden (where Cardigans albums consistently top the charts), from the coy “My Favourite Game”, to the slinky “Erase-Rewind”, to the gorgeous, woefully overlooked knockout “You’re the Storm”. Such is the price a band pays for wanting to grow artistically, yet they doggedly play on, and on their sixth album, while not treading new ground by any stretch, the Cardigans do sound like they’re starting to get that momentum back.
If anything, Super Extra Gravity is a welcome dose of energy compared to the rather lugubrious Long Gone Before Daylight, and one need not look any further than the brilliantly titled “I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need to be Nicer” to find out that not only is this band’s musical bite back, but that Persson’s lyrical sass makes a welcome return as well. One of the finest singles of 2005, it keeps things simple, the band hammering out the song in Gran Turismo fashion, dominated by Peter Svensson’s and Lars-Olof Johansson’s distorted guitars, Bengt Lagerberg’s insistent drumming, not to mention a playful helping of cowbell, but it’s Persson who steals the show, sounding bitter yet sexy as hell, hilariously letting her paramour know who’s master and who’s servant (“Sit… stay… bad dog”), and eloquently describing a relationship viewed through the blurred lens of alcohol: “Baby you’re foul in clear conditions / But you’re handsome in the fog.” Their most exuberant, smartest single in years, it’s an absolute winner, and deserves not to be ignored.
Persson has shown a preoccupation with country music in recent years, going back to her side project A Camp, and the majority of Super Extra Gravity returns to the roots-rock strains that dominated both her 2001 album and Long Gone Before Daylight, and although the results don’t quite return to the level of “I Need Some Fine Wine”, the disc is still a charmer, aided greatly by Persson’s clever lyrics, which, sung in her trademark cooing voice, seem all the more powerful. “Godspell” cynically questions organized religion (“I’ve heard about a great big swindle / I read about it in a book”) over an arrangement highlighted by Svensson’s chiming guitar and Lagerberg’s subtle organ accompaniment. The lush, downbeat “Losing a Friend” and the gentle 6/8 sway of “Overload” hearken back to late ‘50s/early ‘60s balladry, while “Holy Love” and “Don’t Blame Your Daughter (Diamonds)” put a modern rock twist on the country influence, the latter a hostile reply to an ex-husband, the sweet melody contrasting with Persson’s deep-seeded anger (“Read me your tombstone / Tell me you’re sorry / Fax me your will / You owe me something still”).
We do get a couple of pleasant surprises in the gentle Velvet Underground groove of “In the Round” and the starry-eyed acoustic number “Good Morning Joan”, but as the album closes with the gut wrenching “And Then You Kissed Me II” (a follow-up to Long Gone Before Daylight‘s “And Then You Kissed Me”), it’s clear the Cardigans are content with their current middle-of-the-road direction, and while they’re no longer as hip as they were in 1994-1996, the band has developed into a consistently good adult pop rock band. A modest rebirth of sorts, Super Extra Gravity achieves a comfortable balance between the swagger of their late ‘90s work with the more melancholy sound of recent years, proof that this veteran band is not yet past its prime.