Issue #80: Life by The Cardigans

Life by The Cardigans
Released On March 1, 1995
Released By Stockholm Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Guest Contributor Nicole Yun (of Eternal Summers)

When you’re the baby of the family, life is unfair. As the youngest of three girls, I was all too familiar with being tricked, manipulated, or just blatantly ignored. I remember my sisters sticking me in a closet and threatening me with a bat if I tried to come out. This would keep me out of their hair for hours in a day. Monopoly became my least favorite game because my sisters knew all the tricks, and they knew my early elementary school math wasn’t able to keep up with their brutal hypothetical world of capitalism. Though I was often their gullible victim, I was also the greatest benefactor of their worldly influence. I knew what clothes to wear, what their dating lives were like, but most importantly I was able to immerse myself in their music. By the time I was ten years old, I was exposed to my high school sister’s mix tapes, as well as my college sister’s library of CDs. It was in their musical influence that I felt their loving guidance and acceptance.

It was a summer in the mid-’90s that Katie, my oldest sister, came home from art school in Toronto. I always looked forward to what new music she would bring home for her summer visits. For a while it was nothing but Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, and The Pharcyde, all of which I knew was insanely cool, but unrelatable for me. Then it was early Moby, Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers — still refreshing but I just couldn’t connect with any of it. It was the moment I heard the intro for the song “Carnival” off of the album Life by the Cardigans, I knew that my musical world had flipped over. At a time when I was playing in a band at school that covered Rage Against the Machine while I personally idolized the current guitar fuzz of Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam, this music was so sweet, so nuanced and utterly magical. Organs, horns, flute, classical guitar, jazz, lounge, psychedelia, pop — all the colors of this new palette changed me.

I love melodies. I love their melodies especially. On tracks like “Rise & Shine” and “Fine,” there is an unapologetic sense of pop tunecraft in the vocal melody that results in the satisfaction that everything is exactly in the right place — like a perfectly solved math problem, a fun one. Even their instrumental hooks were undeniable. On “Over The Water,” the skronky yet charming melody on flutes just send the song to a new level of catchiness that make it a total pop masterpiece.

Though the musicianship in the Cardigans was serious, the tone on this album is light, airy, fun. I always enjoy it when I know a band isn’t taking itself too seriously. The lyric in “Daddy’s Car” where Nina Persson chimes “our car became our spacecraft, flashing through the world, crashed down in Amsterdam,” just makes you want to daydream about that possibility. The fact that they covered “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” in a slinky lounge style, and continue to cover other Black Sabbath songs on subsequent album just shows their sense of humor.

There are so many other details about Life and about the Cardigans that I could harp on for days — how Peter Svensson is one of the best and most versatile guitarists in pop music, how Nina Persson’s use of her natural voice was a huge step forward for women in music, how the high standards of musicianship in Sweden seem uncanny and untouchable, but so necessary to exist in the world — but those I will save for a much longer essay, or more likely a nerdy conversation with other Cardigans enthusiasts. Until then, I hope you enjoy an album that has left a huge impression on my life.

Nicole Yun (@eternalsummers)
Resplendent Emissary Of Shimmering Sounds

Sweden’s undersold powerhouse of the ’90s, mastering every form of pop with musical magnetism and lyrical spunk.

This was quite an undertaking: processing an album released in three different versions in three different markets over the course of a single year. Fortunately, it’s an album by The Cardigans, for whom I have long held warm feelings due to their enduring pop classic, “Lovefool,” and their propensity for Black Sabbath covers (if you count the Ozzy solo song they’ve done, there are four in all). 1995’s Life, which we are discussing here, is the album before their landmark First Band On The Moon album, from which “Lovefool” originated. They caught lightning in a bottle with that song, which was both a blessing — it’s probably still paying all of their bills right now — and a curse — so incredibly popular that their lengthy career has been reduced in cultural hindsight to one-hit wonder status. Life is proof positive (as if you needed any) that this band’s talents extend quite a bit farther than that one song. The original Swedish version of the album is where I began with listening to this one, and I’d definitely advise anyone new to the album to do the same. After all, this is the only version designed to be a cohesive whole — the other versions replaced several tracks from the album with highlights from their Swedish/Japanese-only debut, Emmerdale. These tracks are a joy in and of themselves — “Rise & Shine“‘s natural sound documents a version of the Cardigans one most likely could only see at Swedish clubs of the era, while “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” is the first and most brilliant of their Black Sabbath reimaginings. However, Life is a most enjoyable top-to-bottom listen in its original form, and presents a unified sound that creates a musical world the listener is easily able to sink into. Tracks like “Daddy’s Car” and “Hey! Get Out Of My Way” jump with an alt-folk energy, while “Gordon’s Gardenparty,” “Beautiful One,” and others bring the mood down to a smooth cocktail-lounge vibe. The band’s quirky, subtle wit and punk-damaged heart are always on display if one knows where to listen, though, and the fact that this album was released in the US by ’90s postpunk/alt-rock label Minty Fresh (which brought the world the initial EPs by Liz Phair and Veruca Salt, among many others) is quite appropriate.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

Unless I’m super-duper pressed for time, I check every record store I visit for the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack. It’s part of the routine at this point. Someday, “Lovefool” will spill out of the bookshelf speakers in my living room. That said, I may have to make Life part of the routine as well. What a dynamic and satisfying set of songs. What a perfect vehicle for shedding the shallow first impression you’d have of the Cardigans if “Lovefool” was your sole point of reference. (It pretty much was for me at the start of this week.) Life makes clear that bubbly pop is just the tip of the iceberg. “Tomorrow” is as tight and effective a soul song as you’ll hear; throw in a couple of backup singers and Diana Ross and you have a damn good Supremes song, not to mention a drum break that’s begging to be chopped up and repurposed. (I’d guess Mr. Ford’s ears perked up there as well.) Skipping ahead to “Gordon’s Gardenparty” is like taking a plane from Detroit to Rio, given how easy it is to imagine the song on an Astrud Gilberto album. The cool softness of Nina Persson’s voice, the flute, the jazzy guitar… it’s just what you hear when you spin Look To The Rainbow. And these aren’t reaches — Peter Svensson’s writing and guitar work here are consistently complex. If you haven’t had the pleasure of getting to know the Cardigans outside of “Lovefool,” I have two words for you: Dive in.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

As someone who just barely missed the boat on experiencing the full wonder of the ’90s firsthand (born in ’93), listening to The Cardigans’ warm, inviting album Life seems about as close as I’ll get to recreating the fond memories many have of that decade. Obviously, The Cardigans are known for a quiet, upbeat, happy kind of music that one might venture to say doesn’t get made that much anymore, although it probably should if songs like the vibraphone and brass laden, perky album highlight “Tomorrow” is any indication. And Nina Persson’s honey-sweet vocals still sound effortless and unmistakably “The Cardigans” twenty years later. But the band also dropped hints of jazz, lounge, and psych into the pop-rock sound they’re most known for, so songs like “Gordon’s Gardenparty,” “Travelling With Charley,” and kind-of-epic-Swedish-tracklist-only closer “Closing Time amble along in these leisurely grooves that belie their complexity. It’s a tricky proposition to keep this all from dipping into oft-derided “easy listening/adult contemporary” territory, but The Cardigans accomplish this with a winning sincerity and, upon closer inspection, some serious musicality. It’s comfort music in the most endearing sense, all sepia tones and fond memories, nostalgia at its finest.

David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer

More recently, with growing discussion and the increasing presence of “listicle” pieces running “10 Songs You Never Knew _______ Wrote!”, the topic of Swedish input toward the U.S. pop music landscape has made its way into conversation because of the powerhouse producer, Max Martin. The increasing revelation among typical music fans that Martin is responsible for a large amount of the pop super acts in the 1990s (Guess what? That whole Backstreet Boys / *NSYNC fan feud was actually two bands playing for the same side!) has put at least somewhat of a spotlight on the connection that is Sweden and pop music. What’s interesting however, is that although Martin single-handedly crafted a huge chunk of the U.S. pop sound in the ’90s and is making his rounds even today (Maroon 5, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, etc.), when one turns to explore the pop music made by Swedes, for Swedes, groups like The Cardigans don’t ring nearly as loud a bell. Additionally, it’s also interesting to hear the music on Life, the quintet’s three-version sophomore release, cultivate an overall melodic shape and bank of tones that is nothing like what made the U.S. pop scene explode in the same time period. The Cardigans had a lighter fare on display — glockenspiel, flute, organ, and acoustic guitar for example — and weren’t afraid to base song hooks on less expected melodic patterns, like the augmented fourth heard in “Closing Time.” Honestly, rather than an alternative or indie pop record of the 1990s, Life plays out much more like an album straight out of the late 1960s or early 1970s — especially when the record’s production values are reflected upon as well. (Heck, “Tomorrow” starts with a hook that could be lifted right out of several hits of the 1950s black pop era.) The sound stage of Life is kept small; its elements mixed and placed tightly together. Nina Persson’s lead vocal was just as delicate as the instrumental backing and for those who believe they have never heard anything by the band prior to this newsletter, if the mildly quirky but ultimately catchy character of The Cardigans’s songwriting on Life somehow feels familiar but you don’t know from where, one of their more recognizable radio songs, “Lovefool,” didn’t appear until their third album, First Band On The Moon. Ultimately, although the kind of success The Cardigans gained was vastly different from that of pop counterparts in the U.S. of the time, their approach to the style is a great way to get a clean and revived perspective on what makes pop music pop. Life also helps remind us that there’s more to a country’s sense of songwriting and hit-making taste that one man’s love of low and heavy synth breakdowns.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

Click here to watch the dance-hall music video for “Carnival.”

Perfectly shot and dressed to fit the song’s early-’60s jazz-pop sound.

When I first saw the email telling us that there were three different versions of The Cardigans’ Life, I got really excited. I have a lot of mixed feelings about albums that get completely restructured for an international market. On the one hand, I understand why labels might think it’s a necessity to do it, especially if a single or B-side really takes off locally it would make sense to capitalize on that song’s strength and rebrand the album when releasing it around the world. But on the other hand, the sequencing of an album is a really important thing. Singles collections and greatest hits compilations notwithstanding, artists don’t generally put their songs on an album in a random order: they’re in the place that they’re in because it fits the flow and keeps the album moving. So to resequence an album means to completely change its flow and the way that the artist intended. But (and I’m sorry to go Fiddler On The Roof on you), on the other hand, when it comes to albums like Life (which did get resequenced — twice, mind you) at least the label had the sense to make it a new listening experience rather than tacking on the bonus tracks. If you’re going to mess with an album’s flow, you might as well really mix it up instead of just adding to the end. So how do the three versions of Life stack up against each other? As it turns out… I don’t really know. I listened to the original Swedish edition (because everyone knows you start with the original) and I just never really got around to listening to the other editions. A part of this is because I read that the other editions of the album included tracks from The Cardigans’ debut album, but a larger part of this reason has to do with the fact that I think that Life is just fine the way it is and doesn’t need any alterations. “Pop music” carries a negative connotation with it, and has for at least the better part of the last few decades, but what some people forget is that pop music can be really good. Life is one of those good pop albums. “Carnival” is such a great opener that it kicks off all three editions, and “Gordon’s Gardenparty” is its complementary slow burner- the idea that the latter could be buried on side B like it is on the US edition is bizarre. “Hey! Get Out Of My Way” is probably my favorite track, with its declarative title being repeated often over a sweet melody (it’s like it comes from some alternate universe where Chumbawamba recorded “Hey! You! Outside Now!” for the ‘Love’ half of Swingin’ With Raymond rather than the ‘Hate’ half) (coincidentally, Life and Swingin’ With Raymond both came out in 1995). Some of the strongest tracks though are the ones that are exclusive to the original Swedish track list. “Pikebubbles” is pure fun and “Closing Time” adds a sense of continuity to the album’s flow, giving the album an impression of being one big show coming to its end. That’s not a metaphor — the lyrics literally say that the “carnival is heading for a new town.” In the same verse, the band wraps up other plot threads from the album: Gordon’s party descended into chaos, Charley (from “Travelling With Charley“) finally solved a case — the murdered baker mentioned moments earlier in “Closing Time,” the clown (from “Sunday Circus Song“) has found a new Life as a plumber and it suits him just fine (“Fine“). The song seems essential from a narrative standpoint, completing the album in a way that a cover of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” just can’t capture. Life is good. Life is fun. Life is fine, and it doesn’t need any alterations to be enjoyed.

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

I love the 1960s sensibilities of this album. It’s warm, cozy, fun, happy, whimsical, and dare I say, groovy. There’s not a record on the album that doesn’t make you want to actually put on a cardigan and a pair of loafers, and shimmy on down to the yacht club to be over-served with Manhattans. Take “Carnival,” for example. It’s like trap music, except for mid-’90s wasps dropping serious coin on espresso. This record is what Friends got ripped to every weekend. And then there’s “Gordon’s Gardenparty” and “Sick & Tired,” both saucy little numbers complete with a jazz flute that would make Ron Burgundy jealous. All of this sixties nostalgia culminates in the album’s most creative gem, “Travelling With Charley.” I love this particular record because it shows such self-awareness. The band knows that their stuff sounds like TV theme songs from the 1960s, so they quite literally made a theme song for an imaginary TV detective show from the 1960s. The show is about a hapless “detective darling” who “never finds a trace,” and every episode ends when “someone else has solved the case.” It’s a brilliant song, and it shows that the group doesn’t take itself too seriously — they’re in on the “joke” too. It’s this kind of risk taking that endears a group like The Cardigans to its audience. So often, our favorite artists are afraid to show us that they’re actually having fun. And what’s Life without fun?

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

There’s nothing I can see in a cursory reading of Swedish history that would have predicted this under-populated nordic country becoming the number one creator of pop hits per capita. But something happened when ABBA figured out how to transmute their Beatles obsession into a slightly robotic (and mostly irritating to these ears) succession of gold records, and everything Swedish has mostly flowed from their example. However, The Cardigans seem to exist in a honeymoon period between ABBA’s mechanics and the current dire state of affairs where Max Martin and RedOne rule over their fiefdom of writers for hire, each specializing in one part of a song (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, or bridge) resulting in the soulless machine-tooled sound that has become unfortunately ubiquitous. So, while The Cardigans certainly have a cup running over with pop smarts, they seem like a real band, which is exemplified by the fact that their lineup has remained unchanged for 25 years. They also stay connected to the idea that while craft is important, evoking a feeling — rather than just directing the listener to have one — is a critical part of good music. Like most Americans, I was introduced to The Cardigans via “Lovefool,” the big international hit from their third album, which slotted in nicely next to St. Etienne on mixtapes or at parties. Listening now to Life, I realize that that was actually a culmination of something rather than the start. Life, in the original Swedish version, is probably their most characterful record, filled with a spirit of discovery but with more mastery than the debut, especially in the arrangements (shout out to producer Tore Johansson!) and Nina Persson’s singing, which can shade a mite too pixie-ish on the earlier material. Peter Svensson’s guitar, which is beautifully recorded and always played with flair, is another highlight. “Carnival,” the opening cut, is basically a template for “Lovefool” and just as undeniable. I also love “Daddy’s Car,” with its essential hint of melancholy, but most of the album goes down with astonishing ease. The tangled release history outside of Sweden is a little hard to fathom, but it’s easy to understand why other versions of the album jettisoned “Closing Time,” which touches on Sweden’s polka-like traditional music to no real purpose, and becomes more self-indulgent with each iteration of the chorus. If The Cardigans wanted out of the pop circus, that was really up to them. Unlike today’s Swedish-made sensations, they actually had a choice (and one they eventually made, with more recent albums exploring a more “mature” sound).

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Life has an undeniably playful and puckish spirit, freely crafted with a tongue in the cheek by the quintet.

Two lines in her cheeks made parentheses around her mouth, where I could read her disapproval. She had short bangs, black glasses, some kind of black and maybe violet dress that was tastefully at the knee, but all I can remember are the twist at the edges of her mouth. Have I ever been paid to write, she wanted to know. Did I have an editor, how did all those run-ons get past her, she asked. Most of what I’ve written for sites has been, luckily, a chance to cultivate my voice, and often that is a profane, passionate one as likely to rant about politics as it is to portray my confusion about Star Wars. Those writings are just one ripple in my pond, but one of which I’m awfully proud; writing a crafted abandon of all the rules is often harder than writing something straightforward. Coming home Friday, leaving the need to protest behind, on a gorgeous day with the whole night ahead, I put Life on again, with its iconic, nostalgic album cover, and sang little snatches as loud as I could at as many red lights as I could. Nina Persson’s sugar spun voice captivates your attention, and the bouncy, quirky instrumentals ground her airiness in a somewhat techy, jazzy haze born of the collaboration between guitarist Peter Svensson and bassist Magnus Svengingsson. If you stopped at the rock candy sweetness of the voice, you would miss the deft mixing of musical tradition. Brilliant, crystalline pop melodies interwoven with bass lines straight from Motown, a classic sense of friskiness hailing from Abbey Road, Life bridges the kind of play-pop we would see from The Starlight Mints with the solid foundations laid by girl groups of the past. From the superbly enthused opening track “Carnival” to the dreamy strawberry fields of “Beautiful One,” the album is full of amazing pop tracks that are definitely fun and bubbly, but can’t be diminished as frivolous or without purpose.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

For this album, we were given the Swedish, UK, and US versions of the album so I made a point to listen to all three. I listened in order of increasing length (which is the same order as listed above) and “Gordon’s Gardenparty” was an early favorite of mine. It proved to me that I haven’t explored the genre of “twee” as much as I should have. I love hearing about people dressing fancy over music that might actually be heard at a garden party, but somehow still managed to rock. It was a fantastic way to ease into the Swedish and U.K. Albums. And then the US version put it almost completely at the end. Somehow, the placement of the song at the beginning of the album was crucial to me because, even though I still loved it, it was outshined (I know it’s probably “outshone” but can we please have some respect for Soundgarden and the bad grammar choices they lead us to) by my favorite song on the album: “Fine.” This song seemed nice on the Swedish and U.K. Albums, but on the US album it feels like a gift from the gods of music. It’s hooky as hell but has an edge to it that makes you think twice. The whole album is fantastic and listening to all of the tracks from all of the versions was enlightening. For instance, I’ve never heard the original version of Black Sabbath’s “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” but hearing The Cardigans version makes me want to. This album has also inspired me to finally take the leap and listen to the album that followed it in 1997, First Band On The Moon, which had a certain breakthrough single I probably don’t need to name. At the time, I loved the song, but was nervous about the album. I’m not nervous any more. And that suits me very fine.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

The quirky qualities of Life make it so lovable. I’ve never quite heard something like this before (and I’m shocked to say it myself). On first listen, it’s tough to place where The Cardigan’s influences stem from. It sounds like pop rock, but it grooves like something you would hear in a French bistro. The airy and light vocals give it another element too, and it’s always polished and serene. There’s something about this record that is so “jazzy” and I can’t put my finger on it. There’s so many sounds bouncing around on Life and this makes it so much fun to listen to. Around every corner, and through every nook and cranny, there’s a light melody, a punchy guitar lick, a soft refrain. The overall composition of the songs are well done and original. This is such a unique-sounding record, from song to song. The fact that it grew to be so popular (especially in Japan) in the mid-1990s is no surprise to me — this is exactly what I would expect out of the quirkiness of the era and what was so accessible to the general public. The ’90s, what a time.

Catherine Dempsey (@coffincutieee)
Emo Kid Seeking Hardcore Band

Despite numerous recommendations, I never got around to reading any of the fabulous books out there on Swedish pop music. Now, after going back through and listening to The Cardigans’ music again, I’m not really sure I want to… unless one of those books happens to have a long chapter (or chapters) devoted to songwriting approach of Nina Persson and Peter Svensson. There’s a sense of musical adventure in their music, one that takes you through a bevy of styles and also points you in the direction of other great works. Whether you pick up the Swedish, UK, or US version (all of which are utterly fantastic), you’ll be treated to a brisk tour through the world of pop music. You’ll stop at a jazz café to grab a drink (“Gordon’s Gardenparty“), skip over to a nearby psych art house (“Beautiful One“), and finish the night up in a bingo hall where a band plays on stage with every instrument the nearby pawn shop had for sale (“Pikebubbles“). But the adventure doesn’t stop there. You’ll get a taste of heavy metal in a more digestible format (“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath“), full showings of ’60s lounge rock (“Carnival“), and even a walkthrough of late ’80s / early ’90s Britrock with twee (“Rise & Shine“) and Madchester (“Tomorrow“). (Worth mentioning how “Tomorrow” takes the plucky bass rhythm and pseudo-structure of “I Am The Resurrection” in a new, gorgeous direction.) All of these styles and call-backs are within arm’s reach of the band, and you could argue whether that’s because they’re so musically talented or because they’re so in sync with their musical core. But it’s pointless to argue about anything regarding Life. Just relax and head out on that dazzling pop journey, with the best available guides in Sweden leading the way.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
The Bone Rodeo by Yankee Longstraw
Chosen By Erin Calvert

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, & Jeremy Shatan

Logo By Matt Klimas


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