Pop Renaissance

Charles Taylor reviews The Cardigans' album "Life".

By Charles Taylor

Published November 1, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

"They're young! They're fresh! They're SWEDISH!!" The Cardigans' American debut, "Life" (Minty Fresh), makes me want to drag out the sort of hype-ridden nuggets that made up the liner notes of pop records in the '60s, hucksterish phrases in which you can hear an echo of the way we bought and listened to records when we were simply fans. Back then, we rushed out to buy a single that kept us listening to the radio in hopes of hearing it, and when we bought a lousy album, it made us feel something like shame, as if we'd tarnished the rest of our collection.
"Life" is an album you can love in the same uncomplicated way. If most of us are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that we loved pop before we loved rock. Pop roped us in by speaking to our private fantasies and longings (I have never been able to see a blur of neon
on a city street at night without hearing Petula Clark singing "Downtown"), before rock spoke to our need to question the limits mainstream society presented us.
An amalgam of the Cardigans' two European releases, "Emmerdale" and "Life," "Life" is the work of pop utopianists trying
to reconcile the disparate parts of the early '60s pop culture they love. They're saying that the cut of the Pierre Cardin suits Patrick Macnee wore on "The Avengers" was as important to them as a Dusty Springfield single, that "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" meant as much as "A Hard Day's Night."
There's nothing elitist about "Life's" distinctly Euro take on '60s pop, the songs about garden parties ("You in your brown checked suit/Said my dress was very cute") and sports-car trips across the Continent, the instrumentation that includes Pernod bottles. "Life" sounds like lots of other music you remember and half-remember, until you try to say what and realize that the Cardigans are out to evoke an entire era, an attitude, a mind-set that mixes the everyday with the sophisticated -- in other words, the daydream of everyone who succumbed to pop.

The album's sound -- light, shimmering, romantic, lush, peppy, and just a bit sad - - is a mixture of "beat music," MOR pop, bossa nova, with a hint of "space age" background music. The songs are, of course, about romance, but at times the real subject seems to be the perfect balance of grounding and buoyancy achieved by Bengt Lagerberg's drumming and Nina Persson's airy voice, which tops the songs like egg whites whipped to soft peaks.
"Tomorrow is a sugar kiss," she sings at one point, and so's the whole album, but never a saccharine one. Peter Svensson and Lasse Johansson's guitars give the numbers a gently swinging momentum, and there isn't a moment when the arrangements cross the line from wit into self-congratulatory irony. There are horns, flutes, organs, but all of it, even the strings that cascade through "Carnival," are presented straight. The Cardigans aren't using this outmoded style for a goof, in the manner of Pizzicato Five or Combustible Edison. They present themselves as a band to listen to, not a joke to get.
Retro is in right now, and all sorts of past pop styles are being
resurrected with po-mo quotation marks to allow audiences to feel hip while assuring themselves that nothing is at stake, that emotion is expendable. It's too much to expect a lighter-than-air pop record to cut against the grain of that trend, especially since the Cardigans may be embraced by the same crowd that thinks, How cool -- everything old is new again. But this parfait of an album is a reminder that even the most frivolous entertainments should entail a basic level of emotional commitment.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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