This look at the debut album – well, sort of – by The Cardigans was originally part of The Memorex Years, a blog project named after an obscure BBC Radio 4 comedy show (of course, everyone will understand that!), where the intention was to give one last listen to all of my remaining audio cassette tapes before catapulting them into the nearest supermassive black hole. It didn’t last very long, and I ended up keeping some of them anyway – some compilations (I will not use the word ‘mixtape’) made by various people at various times which in their own way are as evocative as a postcard, some rare or unusual items (or which simply looked good), and the Nick Berry album, because I liked the idea of still having it on an obsolete format. I’m not overly fond of The Memorex Years as a whole now, finding it generally a bit too waffly and snarky, and the jury is out as regards whether any of the other pieces will find their way onto here in any form. This, however, is a notable exception. It’s about an album I truly and thoroughly adore – none of the others really were – and is also shot through with echoes of my lifestyle at the time, which always helps. Quite how many of the women I met around then would describe me as their ‘truly Beautiful One’ is another question, though. Anyway if you enjoy this, you’ll probably also enjoy this piece on the strange ambience of 1998, this one about Modern Life Is Rubbish by Blur, this one about Lounge/Dance act The Gentle People, and this one about Brass Eye. There’s also a hugely reworked version of this, with more about Great Bassoons In Pop, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, which you can get in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
It’s perhaps an indication of how much the media’s attitude to what constitutes ‘pop’ music has changed that, in the mid-nineties, a sudden deluge of really rather good Scandinavian bands that were perfectly suited to mainstream audiences found themselves shunted to the sidelines and made to stand in the corner marked ‘indie’. Despite sounding not unlike A-ha had done ten years previously, none of them were to enjoy quite the same sort of radio and press support as Morten Harket and his semi-animated bandmates, and as a result never quite managed to make the same kind of chart breakthrough.
The Wannadies and Whale both had their moments, but it was clear from the outset that The Cardigans were the leaders of this particular pack. Somewhere between girly bedsit indie, loungey jazz and stereotypical Scandinavian pop music, they also had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of very good songs and by a stroke of good fortune their UK launch couldn’t have been better timed. The Cardigans’ music sat perfectly alongside both so-called ‘Britpop’ (which, although the ‘history books’ seem keen to forget this, had a far wider pan-European slant before Oasis came along and started messing everything up) and its curious offshoot, the easy listening-fixated ‘Loungecore’ movement. Having a sensitive, bookish, extremely easy-on-the-eye lead singer didn’t exactly hinder their cause either.
Life, the 1995 album that brought them to the attention of the UK’s record-buying public, was promoted as their first offering but that wasn’t strictly true. Life was in fact an amalgamation of the best tracks from the two albums they had already released in their native Sweden, Life and the previous year’s curiously-titled Emmerdale. Even though the resultant ‘new’ album was somewhat overmanned as it was, some tracks still had to be lost along the way and consigned to back catalogue oblivion. A lot of this was slighter fare including In The Afternoon, Cloudy Sky, Our Space, Seems Hard, Last Song, Pikebubbles, Sunday Circus Song, Closing Time and the endearingly silly Over The Water (although some of these did feature as bonus tracks in other territories); a more surprising omission was Black Letter Day, a strong and catchy number that had previously been released as a single in Sweden.
A bit of a myth has grown up in recent years, particularly following The Cardigans’ brief dalliance with heavy rotation on MTV, that Life was twee and cloying and generally unlistenable to anyone bar particularly fey indie kids who were scared of loud guitars. This, it can be safely said, is nonsense; the album does admittedly have one foot in a studied form of what might be termed tweeness, but this is tempered by mellow jazzy tones and touches of mock-abrasiveness, and by the fact that the songwriting is garnished with the sort of frost-dusted ambience that might reasonably be expected of a band who had grown up amid excessive quantities of snow. This was mirrored by the sleeve design, where subdued light blues and turquoises rubbed shoulders with a photo of vocalist Nina Persson dressed up as a cutesy fluffy-jacketed ice skater; this was in fact part of an ‘interchangeable cover design’ conceit that also featured the floppy fringed Boy Cardigans dressed up as acrobats, submarine commanders and the like, but it’s a fair bet that the pretty girl in skates remained steadfastly rooted to the front of most copies.
Life opens with a swirling organ flitting from speaker to speaker, and the sound of Nina fumbling with some matches, clearing her throat and lighting a firework, which explodes in a hilariously muted fashion just as the music kicks in. This is the intro to Carnival, the first track to be released as a single from this reshuffled version of the album. It also manages to put paid to the ‘twee’ nonsense straight away; not just with the funky colourful-lights-on-a-dark-wintry-night backing that shuffles around like a barrel organ caught between two bumper cars (and also has some weird stretchy guitar sounds hidden away in the mix), but with the lyrics as well. Carnival is an everyday story of boy-meets-girl on the way to see the “bright lights from giant wheels”, but they’re both too shy to do anything about it and just end up going on the bumpy slide for a bit. For obvious reasons it’s presented from the female protagonist’s point of view, bemoaning the fact that she’d intended to “take you down there just to make you mine in a Merry-Go-Round” but has resigned herself to the fact that “I will never know ’cause you will never show”. Her frustration – both at the non-move making indie boy and at herself – is cleverly signposted through occasional repetitions of the chorus line “come on and love me now” being growled with an impatience that suggests she wishes one or the other of them would just get on with it and make said ‘move’ before they have to go home and watch Den Olaf Prott Utställning (Inlemmande Moose Omväxling Timme) on Sveriges TV.
Carnival is a fine way to start any album, which is why it’s strange to find Gordon’s Gardenparty straight after it. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with this laid-back piano and flute-driven bossanova about being told you have a cute dress whilst drinking “bubbly pink champagne on ice” at a party also attended by, erm, Inspector Clouseau, just that it’s a lot closer to the wrong end of the Twee-O-Meter than Carnival and sounds a little out of place next to it. Daddy’s Car, on the other hand, is much more like it. A world away from the boneheaded, risibly ‘debauchery’-fuelled road trips depicted in the average (in both senses of the word) Hollywood movie, this is a chronicle of polite and civilised European youngsters borrowing the titular parental vehicle for a jaunt “from Luxembourg to Rome, from Berlin to the moon, from Paris to Lausanne, from Athens to the sun”, burning the candle at both ends in a whirl of hotel bars and finding a card to send from wherever they went. It’s one of the strongest compositions on Life by some considerable Daddy’s Car-assisted distance.
Sick And Tired was the second single to be lifted from the album, and possibly the only chart-troubler in history to make prominent use of a bassoon. Although the band were far from being ‘Sixties Revivalists’, there were certainly some retro tinges to Life and this minor key jangler was heavily rooted in them, containing as it does an anachronistic woodwind arrangement, ‘Beat Boom’-era strumming and a Hank Marvin-esque guitar solo. However, the sixties they were harking back to was a very different one to that which their unimaginative UK-based post-Oasis ‘Noelrock’ dullards believed themselves to be mining. This was an altogether different vision of that over-eulogised decade, and probably a much colder one too, refracted through a land where chilly Moomin-fixated winds blew as The Hootenanny Singers were held up as the last word in far-out psychedelia. Perhaps betraying Cultural Imperialism in full effect, the idea that ‘The Sixties’ might have been subject to slight cultural variations is generally a mystery to those who are force-fed the legacy of Swinging London, only ever vaguely and tantalisingly hinted at by European films, literature and indeed pop records. Its influence is all over Life, though, and not just in the music itself; the promo videos for Rise And Shine and Black Letter Day leaned heavily on the grainy European art film semi-genre (particularly the latter, which was built around black and white footage of Nina miming to the song on a couch in a threadbare studenty ‘pad’), while Carnival saw them decked out as a sixties cabaret band.
Despite containing the lone English-as-a-second-language slipup of the entire album (“tired of being weightless, for all these looking-good boys”, and it’s still not clear whether the narrator was trying to get attention by starving herself or simply ejecting herself into space), the downbeat lyrics of Sick And Tired point towards the band’s obsession with darker themes of emotional anguish, lurking just below the surface of a couple of other tracks on Life and given an alarming full-blown exploration on First Band On The Moon. It’s basically the sound of a moping attic-flat-dwelling girl putting on a brave face after rejection and/or humiliation, feigning contempt for transparent excuses (“you can always say you did no major harm, oh spare me if you please”), but at the same time admitting to being “sick, tired and sleepless, with no-one else to shine for, sick of all my distress, but I won’t show I’m still poor”). Just in case there was any doubt, the coda spells it out in no uncertain terms: “symptoms are so deep, something here’s so wrong, nothing is complete, nowhere to belong, I think I’d better stay here on my own”. Turned out nice again, eh?
Just as the listener is starting to get a bit worried about the narrator of Sick And Tired, and wondering how to make sure that all sharp objects and Sylvia Plath books are put out of her way on a high shelf, along comes the altogether brighter Tomorrow. An Obvious Third Single That Never Actually Was, this cod-Motown number with a cheerful brass accompaniment is one of the slighter offerings but not really for musical reasons; rather that the third person lyrics about someone missing a girl who’s a full “fifteen hour trip away” don’t have the same impact as the more confessional overtones of certain other numbers. Rise And Shine, The Obvious Third Single That Actually Was, is generally considered to be Exhibit ‘A’ in the case of Sweeping Rock Generalisms vs. The Cardigans Being A Bit Twee. It has to be admitted that, on face value, this criticism holds a certain amount of weight, but Rise And Shine is a good deal more sophisticated than the average annoyingly chirpily-chorused pop song. The rising and shining suggested by the title is not some Rod, Jane & Freddy-esque celebration of the fact that when the sun comes up it’s morning, but a futile exhortation by the presumably now slightly less distraught narrator of Sick And Tired to herself to cheer up a bit. Although she claims that “I want to be alone for a while, I want the Earth to breathe to me, I want the waves to grow loud, and I want the sun to bleed down”, she’s also getting a bit tired of her own miserablism and so has taken to raising her head and whispering “rise and shine”. Whether or not this did ultimately put paid to her desire to see the wounded moon is sadly unrecorded. Meanwhile, as far as gradations on the scale of tweeness are concerned, it’s worth noting that the ringing one-note guitar line is a remnant from the decidedly un-chirpy original Sweden-only recording, with an angular and jagged minimalist arrangement barely recognisable as the same song.
The delicate, arpeggiated Beautiful One happily sees a further upturn in mood, sung from the perspective of a girl watching her “beautiful wonderboy” dozing as the daybreak pokes through the curtains, casting “soft beams from an early sun on my truly beautiful one”. More descriptive than much of the rest of the album, the lyrics take a poetic slant and speak warmly of “an envelope filled up with words for you”, being “lost in the blankets”, and “tasting like roses and candy bars, coffee and old cigars”. Which doesn’t sound very flattering, although some early promo photos of The Cardigans suggested that they were rather taken with unlit Cuban air-pollutants. Travelling With Charley veers off at an altogether different tangent, opting for a surprisingly convincing pastiche of Cold War thriller soundtrack jazz to accompany a song about being the glamorous sidekick of some sort of psychic secret agent. By the sound of it (“my agent hasn’t solved a case, my agent never finds a trace”), he’s certainly no John Steed and she’s the brains of the outfit; when things are left to the hapless Charley, who once had his memory wiped and walked straight into a tree, they invariably find that “once we’re getting to the place, someone else has solved the case”. Even going as far as to end on a ‘mystery’ chord, Travelling With Charley could have made a great theme for an off-the-wall detective series about the two mismatched characters. Instead, Nina Persson later ended up singing on the theme tune for a remake of an off-the-wall detective series that didn’t need remaking in the first place, but that’s another story.
Though still far from sounding like Black Flag, Fine is a lot heavier than the rest of the album, featuring a comparatively hard sound with thumping drums and squealing guitars. Harking back to the obsessions and indeed obsession of Carnival, the protagonist here is irked that her boyfriend won’t ask her to marry him, despite the fact that she already wears his “golden ring inside” (“suits me very fine”). It seems it doesn’t matter whether they’re upon a roof below the moon, nearby a park bench in the sun or upon the stairway to your room, she’s always left pleading “why won’t you wrap your life around those certain words I just found?”. Despite its relative rocking-ness, Fine ends with some pretty harmonies and a fadeout flourish on the organ (not to mention Nina adding an off-mic “ooh”), and segues neatly into the jazzy waltz-time Celia Inside. The lush arrangements of the rest of the album give way to a stripped-down sound, built around improv-friendly acoustic guitar jamming and soft drumming, with the odd electric piano tinkle and burst of loungey trumpet adding that bright-sunshine-on-an-icy-day feel that mirrors the mood of the lyrics. Yet another tale of moping around in a bedroom, albeit a third-person one (“you don’t want the sun to shine in, so you turn the curtains down… and you don’t feel it’s sunny outside”), it turns out that the titular Celia is the cause of all this misery as “she won’t care one way or the other” about the feelings of her jilted suitor. That jilted suitor – and it’s (presumably deliberately) ambiguous over whether they are male or female – certainly does care both one way and the other, utterly crushed by her heartlessness (“you don’t want no joy for a while, but you stay up late at night, it hurts you that she’s still alive”) and immersing themselves in poetry for comfort, but still in awe of her beauty and her purity (although, considering the apparent situation, what ‘purity’ would that be exactly?).
Hey! Get Out Of My Way is another sort-of rocker, ‘sort of’ in the sense that the band’s sturdy arrangement is counterpointed by a stereotypical Nordic flute and the reappearance of that celebrated bassoon. It appears to find the overemotional young lady sketched out in previous songs finally discovering a bit of self-confidence and telling a useless boyfriend to sling his hook in no uncertain terms (“I’m sick and tired of your dramatic ways, and when I think of all those wasted days, I shake loose of your laces”). As the song progresses this self-confidence only builds, with her first becoming blunt (“I’m not in love with you”) and finally threatening “I’ll be good to you if you stay gone, far out of my view”.
Self-confidence is not, however, in much evidence during After All…. A piano and husky voice duet recorded in such intimacy that you can almost see Nina leaning against a grand piano in a nightclub scene in a film, it’s an unremittingly bleak offering and even the brief guitar solo sounds as though it’s being played by someone so haunted by the song that they give up after a couple of seconds. The opening line states “after all you were perfectly right, but I’m scaring close to insanity, though our relation just split me in two”, and that ‘scaring close’ becomes just plain scaring when it degenerates into a long list of how on a night like this nothing stays the same, nothing looks the same, pieces fall apart, visions fall apart and finally nothing could be worse. Like The Smiths’ Asleep, this is so frighteningly close to a suicide note in song that it almost makes you want to reach for an international phone directory and try and convince the young lady that life isn’t so bad after all. There’s something of an attempt at lightening the mood by closing with a ‘nice’ piano chord, but that chord really is fighting a battle that’s already been lost.
Fortunately, there’s a little bit of humour on hand to lift proceedings in time for the end of the album. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is, as the title rather obviously suggests, the old Black Sabbath number transposed into Cardiganland to fantastic effect, with the monster riffs of Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler replaced by jangly guitars and electric pianos, and Ozzy Osborne’s bizarre Peter-Cetera-With-A-Peg-On-His-Nose singing replaced by girly whisperings. Some critics expressed bafflement at the choice of cover version and decided it must have been deliberately ‘ironic’, but it’s worth remembering that the band were after all Euroteens and therefore no doubt not averse to punching the air to Van Halen’s Jump just before chucking-out time at Club Rok Diner; indeed, they would later go on to cover Sabbath’s Mr Crowley and Iron Man and Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town, with barely a knowing smirk on their faces. Meanwhile, ‘proper’ heavy metal fans just got a bit shirty and humourless about it all, ignoring the fact that hearing the apocalyptic lyrics delivered in the manner of sweet nothings actually makes them even more sinister in a way.
Life is not, as so many would have us believe, the sound of overgrown toddlers resenting the fact that they advanced past the age where they could legitimately have jelly and ice cream at their birthday parties, and whose one aim in life is to metamorphose into a huge pile of that crystallised sugar from inside flying saucer sweets. Instead, it’s pretty much what Nick Drake would have sounded like if he’d been Swedish, a girl, and noticeably less haunted by indefinable inner demons. For an album that actively pursues the path of the lightweight pop melody it’s surprisingly deep and moody, and not for nothing did Chris Morris repeatedly plunder its contents when looking for music to back the disturbing sketches in his radio show Blue Jam.
No doubt to the annoyance of those who spent several frustrating weeks in 1995 searching for a surprisingly elusive copy after hearing Mark Radcliffe and Lard playing Sick & Tired on their in-studio Bontempi organ, Life is still widely available. No doubt with the ‘Nina’ cover still firmly in place.
You can find an expanded version of this feature, with memories of early online Cardigans fandom and more on that pesky bassoon, in in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can also find a feature looking at both Blue Jam and Mark and Lard’s ‘Graveyard Shift’, and how exciting late night Radio 1 was in general in the days when it tended to feature The Cardigans a lot, here. There’s also a look at what was on some of those Compilation Tapes (with a playlist!) here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.