THE CARDIGANS…AN APPRECIATION (OF SORTS)

I’ve thought long and hard about this one.

I don’t like using the blog to be negative about things, which is why, on occasion, a disappointing live show or album won’t get a mention. I did, over a year back, launch the idea of a series called ‘Had It, Lost It’ but quickly shut it down when it became clear that much of the TVV readership wasn’t comfortable with the concept.

But it is hard to post something about The Cardigans without having a sideways swipe at the dullness of the pop-rock stuff which personified their commercial peak…and I’ll come to that in due course.

The band was formed in 1992 in Jönköping, Sweden by guitarist Peter Svensson, bassist Magnus Sveningsson, drummer Bengt Lagerberg, keyboardist Lars-Olof Johansson and singer Nina Persson. The band’s principal songwriters were Peter and Magnus, both of whom had been in heavy metal bands previously, and so it was something of a surprise that debut album, Emmerdale (1994), was packed with the sort of light, intelligent and most easy-going of indie-pop, one which had more in common with the mid 80s than the guitar-driven Britpop sounds which was all the rage in the UK.

mp3 : The Cardigans – Rise and Shine

Mind you, the band did pay a nod to the roots of the songwriters with this cover (which surely placed ideas in tghe minds of those who would later form Nouvelle Vague):-

mp3 : The Cardigans – Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath

Emmerdale was one of those albums that ‘those in the know’ were quoting as being very listenable; the media, which has always throughout the history of pop music been besotted by bands with attractive female lead singers, were drawn by the charm and style of Nina Persson and before long, the band was gathering column inches. The sophomore album, Life, took up perfectly from where Emmerdale had left off, albeit it was more of a collective effort with all five members contributing in one way or another to the music and lyrics.

mp3 : The Cardigans – Carnival

It’s a peach of an album, its 11 tracks coming together to form genuinely wonderful piece of essential and very clever pop music, The Swedish critics remained euphoric and the buzz being generated was really growing. The decision was taken to try to ‘launch’ the band to the UK market through a different version of Life, one which removed three songs and replaced them with five from Emmerdale, including the tracks that had been hit singles in Sweden and the Black Sabbath cover – as much to give a different point of reference for those who were interviewing or profiling the band as much as anything.

It’s worth mentioning that The Cardigans, despite the critical acclaim being heaped upon them, weren’t selling huge amounts of records, even in Sweden. Emmerdale had reached #29 and Life hit #20, but none of the singles had done much. As such, it was quite a brave move to try to crack the UK and the initial efforts didn’t achieve much in the way of chart success, although the band was beginning to receive regular plays on the evening shows on Radio 1 and be invited to perform on TV shows, such as The White Room, hosted by Mark Radcliffe.

It turned out, however, that Life was a bit of a slow-burner, never quite getting enough sales in any one week to ever crack the Top 50 in the UK but eventually collecting a Gold Record for 100,000 sales. The band remained ridiculously popular in Japan, with Life eventually selling 500,000 copies there, a situation which led to the band being poached away from their Swedish label by Mercury Records.

The third album, First Band On The Moon, appeared in 1996. The advance single provided a #21 hit in the UK:-

mp3 : The Cardigans – Lovefool

The album was more akin to Emmerdale than Life (and still the former hadn’t been issued outside of Sweden and Japan), as evidenced by most of the songs being Svennson/Sveningsson compositions as well as yet another fun-filled cover of a Black Sabbath number.

mp3 : The Cardigans – Iron Man

And then something strange happened….which changed the band forever.

Lovefool was chosen to be part of the soundtrack to what proved to be one of the biggest films of 1996, the Baz Luhrmann re-make of Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the tragic lovers. MTV began airing a video for Lovefool which was composed in the main of clips from the film and the next thing you know, Mercury decide to capitalise with a re-release and were soon laughing all the way to the bank as it reached #2 in the UK, #1 on the US Billboard Chart and Top 10 all over Europe and in Australia. The Cardigans had, in the minds of the general public, finally arrived.

Fame and fortune did not, however, bring happiness.

Which leads me to the next record, Gran Turismo, which proved to be the commercial peak in 1997.

It’s an album which spawned three hit singles – My Favourite Game, Erase/Rewind and Hanging Around – but turned The Cardigans into a run-of-the-mill, dull and indistinguishable band. The light touch and humour that was so obviously on display on previous releases was replaced by boom and bombast, with expensively made videos on heavy rotation on all sorts of rock channels. It sold in huge quantities and brought them a wider audience – the songs were in demand for film soundtracks and the increasingly important and lucrative video games market – but in doing so everything that had been attractive about the band was lost.

And if you wanted an example of just how far down the indie-tree the band had fallen, just recall that 1999 saw them record a duet with Tom Jones for his covers album Reload, in which they butchered Burning Down The House by Talking Heads.

There were tensions within the band with them unsure of what to do next. Peter, Magnus and Nina all went off and did side projects, none of which were huge successes. It did succeed in helping them refocus and to get back together to write and record Long Gone Before Daylight after a five-year hiatus, by which time they were back on their original Swedish label, unwilling to play the game asked of by the multi-national major.

It was a huge change from what had come before, with no hints of the early pop or the later rock. There was even a change of image with Nina’ previously very Scandic blonde looked replaced by jet black. She had also taken responsibility for writing all the lyrics and what emerged was a tone, feel and mood which matched her new hair colour. Peter Svennson took care of the music, and all too often it matched the lyrics, which would have been fine if it had, for instance, been something of a torch album or given a hint of soul, but too many of the songs got lost in an AOR, almost Fleetwood Mac sort of sound. It sold well in Sweden where the band had now been accorded status of national treasure, but was a relative flop elsewhere. The lead-off single did give the band their last ever taste of chart success in the UK, reaching #31 in February 2003:-

mp3 : The Cardigans – For What It’s Worth

Interesting choice of cover song for the b-side:-

mp3 : The Cardigans – Das Model

Come 2005, their sixth album Super Extra Gravity was released. Once again, it was a huge hit in Sweden but a flop elsewhere. This was the lead-off single:-

mp3 : The Cardigans – I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need to Be Nicer

Great song title, but rather an ordinary sounding song.  Come the end of the tour to promote the album, which was played before diminishing audiences, the band broke up.

But they did eventually get back together, of sorts, in that Peter Svensson, the main musical force from the outset, declined to be part of it. Here’s wiki to explain:-

In 2012 the Cardigans received a lucrative offer from Hultsfred Festival to perform the album Gran Turismo in full. After initial hesitation, the band decided to accept the offer “as it felt like a good way of tearing us out of our strange new everyday life,” according to Persson. Peter Svensson declined to participate, although he had no objection to the band touring without him. They recruited singer-songwriter Oskar Humlebo to fill in for Svensson, and asked their agent to seek more shows for them to play. Ultimately, the band made their live comeback with shows in Lund and Copenhagen ahead of Hultsfred, before playing in Poland, Finland, Russia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Japan, with a scheduled concert in Israel cancelled by the promoter. Most of these shows involved performing Gran Turismo in full, followed by an assortment of hits from their other albums.

Still with Humlebo in place of Svensson, the band played career-spanning sets when touring resumed during late 2013 with shows in Japan, China and Russia, followed by more dates in 2015 which took them to South Korea, Europe and South America. In interviews promoting her 2014 solo album Animal Heart, Persson suggested that the success of their most recent live dates opened the possibility for future Cardigans recordings, though there were no firm plans. “It’s really fun to do greatest hits things, since there’s nothing else, but I think if we continue having this much fun we would like to make another record, because we like to create new things,” said Persson.[11] The band’s only scheduled show for 2016 was at Qstock (Oulu, Finland) on 29 July. In 2017 they performed in Stockholm and in Turku, Finland.

In June 2018, the band announced their only live shows of the year: a four-date U.K. tour in December to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Gran Turismo in which they would perform the album in full again. In an interview to promote the tour, Persson stated, “There won’t be any more Cardigans records, I’m pretty sure. But we’ll keep doing little tours and shows as long as it’s fun, as long as we can do it well and feel that it’s something that’s current to us.”

The reviews of those UK shows were mixed, with many reflecting that the venues were less than full and those who came along seemed to prefer the second half of the shows in which material other than Gran Turismo was aired. I’d have reacted similar if I’d been there.

I’ve put this piece together, with nine tracks in all (including the video clip), as I was contemplating an ICA but given how few songs post-1996 would have featured, I went for the career perspective instead…and hopefully haven’t upset too many by being a bit snide about Gran Turismo.

JC

5 thoughts on “THE CARDIGANS…AN APPRECIATION (OF SORTS)

  1. Completely agree – the first three albums were tremendous, after that it was a bit mundane.

  2. The Cardigans will always have a special place in my heart as the first gig I saw at the Barras at the age of 15. It’s a cooler “first gig” story than Ant and Dec, even if the pop stuff is a bit samey 🙂

  3. I wasn’t a fan, however I do love ‘Great Divide’. Enjoyed reading that post, JC – thank you.

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