THE CARDIGANS: LIFE (1995)
1) Carnival; 2) Gordon's Gardenparty; 3) Daddy's Car; 4) Pikebubbles; 5) Tomorrow; 6) Beautiful One; 7) Traveling With Charley; 8) Fine; 9) Sunday Circus Song; 10) Hey! Get Out Of My Way; 11) Closing Time.
Although in most respects Life seems to be a fairly predictable sequel to Emmerdale, it takes a fairly more upbeat and optimistic tone than its predecessor. The idea is that "life is a carnival", so, naturally, the first song is titled ʽCarnivalʼ, the last song is ʽClosing Timeʼ, and in between you also have ʽSunday Circus Songʼ, ʽGardenpartyʼ, and other tunes that seem to be about having fun and feature mostly positive titles (ʽBeautiful Oneʼ, ʽFineʼ). Of course, it's all about subtext and irony: most of the verse lyrics and melodic overtones are still complaining and melancholy. This is not the kind of band, after all, which you'd expect to suddenly turn around and go all freaky-happy on you in hopes of expanding its teenage audience.
Whether they are frowning or smiling in their melancholy, though, matters nowhere near as much as whether they can maintain the same level of appeal in their hooks and the same level of taste in their arrangements — and in that respect, Life is easily as strong as its predecessor. In fact, it is usually rated higher than its predecessor, but that is mainly for publicity reasons: Life was their first LP to truly go international, and it also went international in a bastardized version, with three or four (differently in US and European editions) of the songs replaced by five songs from Emmerdale. So, for most critics, this was their first glimpse of the band, and they received a representative mix of happy-sad Cardigans with sad-sad Cardigans.
We here are looking at the original Swedish version, though, which is mostly all happy-sad, and maybe a little more monotonous, but also a little more consistent as a result. ʽCarnivalʼ kicks things off with a little bossa nova, as befits the title; however, it is used more like a background setting for the main theme, reflected in the chorus — "I will never know, cause you will never show, come on and love me now", this is Euridice turning tables on her own black Orpheus, with unclear results. Then we get a change of the scene, and instead of the carnival, we have ʽGordon's Gardenpartyʼ with its vaudevillian, but slightly funkified atmosphere, and Nina in her Marilyn Monroe emploi — there is not a single word in the lyrics that would suggest anything but a party atmosphere, and yet the past tense, the sighing, the flutes, and the chimes all make it clear that the whole thing either never happened, or will never happen again.
Yes, the irony of the Life title is that nothing here is about life, really — it's either all about a certain life that was (but we are not sure), or a life that could be (but we will never have it), or a life that couldn't even be (but no one can stop us from dreaming about it a little). ʽDaddy's Carʼ is a gloomy little travelogue-in-the-past, namechecking European cities with as much abandon as the musical transition from chorus back to verse suddenly quotes the desperate chords of ʽI Want You (She's So Heavy)ʼ. ʽTomorrowʼ is a beautiful combination of upbeat electric pop with a psychedelic chiming melody and more ruminations on the issue of loneliness and how to overcome it. And only ʽPikebubblesʼ is just a piece of giggly absurdism, throwing you off your guard with a whacky time signature (like a really hobbling waltz) and di-diddley-dums.
The record only seriously changes tone once: ʽHey! Get Out Of My Wayʼ, like the title suggests, introduces a pinch of anger and aggressive feminism, as if, for once, the band decided to take its cues from Blondie rather than Julie London — although even here, Nina cannot make herself sound really pissed. Instead, her "get out of my way!" treats the ex-lover as more of an annoying housefly than anything, and she sounds too bored and disgusted to even bother picking up a swatter. It's funny, and a nice extra touch to complete the psychological portrait of Life's heroine before we launch into the epic ʽClosing Timeʼ — which, instead of playing it safe and being a two-minute little goodbye, goes through several different sections with different tempos and different stories and ends in ʽHey Judeʼ mode... not really, because after the last tinklings of the acoustic riff fade away, there's a few more minutes of muffled noises, complete silence, The Lost Chord, and an acoustic coda. If that ain't creativity, no hopes for Sweden.
I do not feel that the songs here are as consistently amazing as the ones on Emmerdale, but the reaction would probably depend on which of the two you hear first — or maybe it's just that this atmosphere of intentionally-fake happiness sometimes gets to me. But with every next listen, they become more and more endearing, and ʽClosing Timeʼ could arguably be described as the peak of their songwriting powers — so another major thumbs up here anyway.