The Cardigans' Biggest Album Gets Reissued and Warrants Love from Us Fools
Music fans were fooled by "Lovefool", and a newly-minted vinyl pressing of the Cardigans "hit" album showed that these Swedish pop-rock one-offs had oh so much more to offer the world.
First Band on the Moon
1 February 2019
Episode five of Chris Molanphy's Slate podcast "Hit Parade", where the chart analyst and music critic tackles a new rabbit hole of pop chart fascination every month, has him diving into something music fans in the '90s were always wondering: why oh why did we ever have to pay $18 for a CD when all we wanted was one song?
The whole episode is worth listening to, but the general thesis is that this came at a time of particular greediness by the music industry, realizing that when a song was becoming a radio hit in the mid-'90s, the smart thing to do was to pull the CD single from shelves, thereby forcing consumers to get the full album, which would get increasingly marked up in each passing year. Before the Billboard charts ever incorporated radio play into their metrics, certain bona fide hits never ended up making the famed Hot 100 due to this practice, which is why casual fans of pop history may be stunned to find that No Doubt's "Don't Speak", one of the band's signature songs and a decade-defining hit to boot, never hit that all-genre pop survey, even though it was inescapable.
This practice ended up pushing albums with just a few hit songs (or even a single hit) into multi-platinum status, making careers for artists like Chumbawamba and Lou Bega, who would be considered one-hit wonders or novelty acts by any other metric. One group that got swept up into this practice was a great Swedish pop export known as the Cardigans. Their earworm "Lovefool" ended up on the sensational 1996 Baz Luhrmann film Romeo + Juliet, which in turn helped push their third album, First Band on the Moon into platinum status.
No one can deny the positively flirty power of the "Lovefool" nu-disco sway, but a recent vinyl reissue of Moon has brought the band's legacy into sharp focus, and one would be surprised to learn that had they been given a shot in the States, The Cardigans could've been a force to be reckoned with. As it stands, they are only relegated to "remember them?" compilations and nostalgia trip playlists.
Initially composed of guitarist Peter Svensson and bassist Magnus Sveningsson -- heavy metal rockers who grew bored of heavy metal -- the Cardigans soon expanded to feature keyboardist Lars-Olof Johansson, drummer Bengt Lagerberg, and vocalist Nina Persson. The band's 1994 debut Emmerdale was fairly run-of-the-mill guitar-based pop-rock, but with 1995's over-the-top album Life, they tried a downright whimsical amount of pop styles, cheeky almost to the point of parody. That sense of sonic experimentalism, however, lead to the clear commercial breakthrough that First Band on the Moon was, and they were all the better for it.
Throughout, the band marries bright, breezy pop styles to increasingly subversive lyrics, painting over perversion with colorful textures. "I've been your sister / I've been your mistress / Maybe I was your whore," Persson coos over "Been It", a bit of Mysterians-styled '60s garage pop. On "Happy Meal II", Persson finds satisfaction in a new, kinky partner, and on the psychedelia-lite guitar number "Step on Me", she describes suffering the pangs of a difficult relationship because she loves the guy, so why not?
Psycho-sexual mind games dominate a lot of the Cardigans' lyric sheets, and sometimes those mind games are done with music too. Near the end of the record, the group breaks out an impossible, lounge-ready version of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" with sweet, sickly group vocals and a slow drum shuffle. It's as inexplicable as it is delightfully unexpected, and cues up expectations well for the recorder-driven jangle-pop of closer "Choke", a bright melody about fully unrequited romance. The group's adherence to dark lyrics accenting their bright melodies makes for a surprisingly rewarding relisten experience.
Yet all of these treats couldn't hide the fact that "Lovefool" is what that the band would ultimately be known for. They mixed things up with the somewhat more serious-minded Gran Turismo in 1998, and then put out a pair of country-accented albums after that. The group fractured around 2006 to put out solo efforts and reunited in 2012 to tour on occasion, but the glorious oddities that pepper their discography, wherein no two records sound the same, make them worthy of genuine critical re-evaluation.
The Cardigans had their moment in the sun, but they're certainly not a band to warrant pity so much as simple reappraisal. As they note in their single "Losers": "Losers are your weakness / They will always touch your heart / You are touching me as well / 'cos I have always been a part."