THE CARDIGANS: GRAN TURISMO (1998)
1) Paralyzed; 2) Erase/Rewind; 3) Explode; 4) Starter; 5) Hanging Around; 6) Higher; 7) Marvel Hill; 8) My Favourite Game; 9) Do You Believe; 10) Junk Of The Hearts; 11) Nil.
Well, things change. Although the band's fourth record was made in the same Stockholm studio and produced by the same Tore Johansson, the sound has definitely... evolved. There is a clear drive here to make it more modern, by shifting a lot of emphasis over to electronics, drum machines, and trendy trip-hoppy rhythms — forget the lounge jazz and retro-pop of yesterday, here we are trying to peep through the window of tomorrow. Does the music suffer? Hell yes, it does, although it also has to do with the overall mood in the studio: it's as if they all spent way too much time listening to Portishead, and now all they can think of are these slow, smoky, electronically enhanced grooves where atmosphere counts more than melodic hooks. (Not that Portishead did not have their fair share of melodic hooks — but if you are influenced by someone like that, first thing you're gonna try to emulate is the texture, not the chord progressions).
Anyway, upon overcoming the initial disappointment, once the bitter fog has cleared, it was quite a consolation to understand that on the whole, the melodic skills of Svensson and Svenigsson did not truly deteriorate (although, curiously, Svenigsson is credited only on two of the tracks; most everything else is co-written by Svensson with Nina), and that Nina's potential for seduction may be fully realized in an electronic setting just as well. Maybe that unique Cardigans magic is really no more, but this is still high quality pop music. I think most of the attention in 1998 was diverted to the controversial music video for ʽMy Favourite Gameʼ (ooh, road violence! blood! car crashes! censorship! real scary!); however, 1998 is long past us and we are now free again to just enjoy the music without the outdated MTV perspective.
ʽMy Favourite Gameʼ is actually a good song that does not forget to incorporate a strong hook, in the form of a nagging, «whimpering» three-note guitar riff that agrees beautifully with Nina's melancholic vocals — although behind that generall melancholy, there are few secrets to discover. The second single, ʽErase/Rewindʼ, with a funkier, more danceable groove and an intentionally more robotic vocal performance, was a slightly bigger hit in the UK, but it's actually less impressive because it's so monotonous.
Actually, the best songs here tend to be the slowest ones: they also take the most time to grow on you, but it is worth the wait. ʽExplodeʼ, for instance — what a fabulous vocal part, where each accented syllable is drawn out with so much eroticism, even if the lyrics do not formally have much to do with sexual tension (more like "explode or implode" is a metaphor for a drug addiction, though the lyrics are deliberately ambiguous). Not much else by way of melody, but the somber organ and the jangly guitar (or is that a harpsichord part? hard to tell with those production technologies) provide a nice sonic blanket for the vocals. ʽHigherʼ is formally classifiable as adult contemporary — but that's a really soulful, sensitive adult contemporary chorus out there. It takes a special talent to sing a line like "we'll make it out of here" so that it combines both the optimistic hope of getting out of here and the firm knowledge that we will never get out of here at the same time, and Nina Persson does have it.
Electronics and adult contemporary aside, they even managed to sneak a song here that would later attract the attention of the Deftones — ʽDo You Believeʼ is not exactly nu-metal, but it rocks harder than anything else on here, with industrial-style distortion of the riff and a «brutal» coda where the soft-psychedelic echoing of the chorus contrasts with the riff put on endless repetition. The lyrical message is the simplest on the album — "do you really think that love is gonna save the world? well, I don't think so" — and, as if in self-acknowledgement of the fact, it is also repeated twice: yes, this whole record is about tragic endings, disappointments, and disillusionments, and sometimes they are going to shove it in your face quite openly. It's not very original, but it's honest, and as long as they still got musical ideas to back it up, it's okay with me.
So yes, Gran Turismo might essentially be qualified as Portishead-lite, but even if «lite» rhymes with «shite», this does not mean they're identical. The downfall of The Cardigans as a band with its own voice probably starts here, and as they add ʽErase/Rewindʼ to their hit collection, the number of people who know them for being providers of catchy, but faceless dance tracks begins to outnumber the number of people who know them for being wonderful musicians. But album-wise, in 1998 they were still playing a respectable game, so here is another thumbs up. And as far as combinations of guitars and electronica in pop music are concerned, this is still a lighter (and better) experience than, say, Madonna's Ray Of Light.