I'd been waiting a long time for this record, though, to be honest, I'd forgotten my anticipation in the six years that have elapsed since the Cardigans' last full length. Gran Turismo should have garnered a confetti parade of praise, with every single track a stand alone, icily atmospheric pop single. Sadly, we were collectively sick of the trip-hop aesthetic (thank you, Hooverphonic) from which it drew minor inspiration, so it landed with minimal acclaim except for a few yawning accolades. Gran Turismo fell victim to the ever-accelerated cult of cool.
Much like the Japanese, we have become voracious trend eaters, cycling through fads in the culture trough at a pace that's almost comically brief. Much musical criticism unfairly defines artists against this process, declaring this or that musical form dead in the rush to canonize every ephemeral flourish of originality. In the trammeling melee that ensues, much like those '80s Toys-R-Us riots over Cabbage Patch Dolls, artists that deserve a second chance and a fair hearing get crushed by the forces which simultaneously seek to mirror public wants and anticipate future trends. Which brings me to Long Gone Before Daylight. There is nothing canonical or groundbreaking about the Cardigans' latest release. In fact, it's so unfashionably solid and sincere, that it's very possible that it will get glossed over in a system of critical competition that's only peripherally tied to artistic merit.
Maybe this is the record where the Cardigans finally become what they always wanted to be. There are no "Lovefool"s here and no "Erase/Rewind" forays into moody electronica and none of those tarty, Bachrach-infused lounge songs. Long Gone Before Daylight sifts through all affect leaving only skeletal melody and an unadorned lyrical honesty whose homeliness verges on, but never succumbs to, sentimentality. If there's a pop single pitch buried in here, it's witchy and slow, the kind of back burning ballads that ember their way into your head and leave you mouthing out the tones before the words finally sink in. "And Then You Kissed Me" unfolds languidly, with just thin fog of churchy organ, a few notes of acoustic guitar and singer Nina Perrson punching all of the cuteness out of her voice and reaching a breathtaking crescendo of earnestness. But just when you think this the kind of song you e-mail to Total Request Live as a shout out to your lover, you catch a line like "you hold me with your violent heart". Worse yet, it seems like it's a love song about someone who beats the crap out of her. Barring the snag of Persson's apparent need for therapy, the song has an enveloping, enraptured beauty to it that speaks volumes about the Cardigans' pared down pop agility. "Lead Me Into the Night" has a waltzing country tinge that's all whiskey shots, wood tables, and beer tears. It has all the heart-sleeved nudity of those scenes in movies where two people magnetically draw to one another from across a crowded room. This could easily be an indie wedding song and you'll have to pardon me for getting misty-eyed here.
If I have any reservations about the album, they come in the sticky groping of some of the lines. A certain translational awkwardness pervades Long Gone Before Daylight, a sense that either the Swedish idioms don't neatly lend themselves to English or that Persson simply opted for conveying emotional rawness in all its stubbled, artless glory. "A Good Horse" seems to be about a reliable lover, though the protracted metaphor of the significant other as pony becomes tangled and confusing, conjuring up Harlequin romance dust jackets and disturbing Internet spam. I think I get what she's saying, but the anachronistic phrasing fits the song badly, adding the taint of melodrama in an album whose primary virtue is its stripped-down clarity. Similarly, "You're the Storm" compares a love affair to an imperial war of aggression. For my buck, imperialism fails as a metaphor for being loved because of all its attendant associations of violence, nationalism, conquering, and exploitation. Maybe Persson wanted to write her own "Every Breath You Take", a paean to boot licking and a sweet pop take on submitting to big poppa. I have no problem with explorations of the violence inherent in some forms of love, but when you're making a record with such unburdened simplicity, it's not that easy to handle nuance without fumbling it. This song makes me fidget, laugh, and wonder how exactly Persson thought this conveyed anything other than linguistic overkill. Use scrap paper. Maybe it's just the current state of the world that makes this analogy unbearably awkward, but anyway you slice it, it's difficult to see what "dropping bombs" means in the arena of love or why exactly we need yet another aspect of human life colonized through the artistic lens of violence.
But there are many more moments where Persson's ordinary eloquence captures more than it misses. On "Feathers and Down", one of the many tracks that covers the miscommunications and bitter aftertaste of love, she engages in a protracted criticism of a whiny lover: "So you thought that getting sober / Would mean your life was over / I don't think it's that bad". It's a gentle rebuke, clothed in Persson's staring-at-the-ground pace and a guitar lick that's just as ambiently wandering. "No Sleep" unfolds as a whispered prayer with Persson beseeching, "If God lent his voice to me to speak / I'd say 'go to bed, world'". Countless other lines catch in your ear or manage to make a fresh impression, which is no small feat when the subjects run the gamut from being in love to losing love to being pissed off at but still in love with the one you love. The Cardigans have made one of the best depressing dive jukebox records of the year.
Long Gone Before Daylight eschews all flair and any flirtations with stylishness. It's like the Cardigans sat down with a handful of Gram Parsons gems and filed off any remaining indications of genre. This is one of the most straightforward records I've ever heard, and for that, one of the most endearingly beautiful. There's something somberly adult about this album, as if the band needed a deep exhale of a catharsis, a hefty exercise in emotional and artistic palette cleansing. Words like "sturdy" and "reliable" kept recurring to me throughout this review, though I hesitated to use them since they conjure up images of bourgeoisie surrender. This is a record of calming creature comforts, the kind of album you can't do without even if you can't get past the "granny underwear" dent in its sex appeal.