Sometimes a band are so good that they fear their greatness and run away from it, only to encounter a different sort of glory. The Cardigans were always brilliant. Completely, wholly amazing. Their first three albums brimmed with beautifully crafted pop that left the listener warm and happy because the music never failed to sound…wholesome. They looked great too. Nina Persson, whose sweet voice has a transformable quality to it, able to snap into position required for the song. Peter Svensson, who wrote all of their songs (often along with Nina) is probably the most underrated guitarist in rock. Or so I’ve always believed. Magnus Sveningsson, whose bass gave their songs a strong foothold. Bengt Lagerberg, the perfect drummer for the band. And finally, Lars-Olof Johansson, who contributed keyboards and some guitar. They’re perfect, The Cardigans. Even when they decide to commit commercial suicide. This is roughly what happened:
With the release of their third album First Band on the Moon, the stars aligned to give The Cardigans their biggest hit to date. There was a point during the ’90s when Lovefool was supremely ubiquitous on the airwaves. It was everywhere. MTV. The Box. Phone bills peaked for that song. It was Leonardo DiCaprio’s fault, actually. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet put it on the soundtrack and suddenly everyone had a great backing track to a botched suicide pact. We loved it. I certainly did. Something about that soundtrack felt right. The right bands at the right time for the right film with the right lead actor. Garbage. Radiohead. Butthole Surfers. The Wannadies. But it was The Cardigans who really took off at superspeed with Lovefool, the song of a summer. They must have hated the song after a while. Constantly hearing it. Forever playing it. At some point Peter and Nina decided they wanted something different. Having played around with darker songs during past albums (all of which were completely eclipsed by chirpier singles), they moved towards a colder perspective, glacial pop songs would be put alongside loud spiky guitars. Les Paul guitars. Synthetic trip-hop beats. Pro-Tools. This was going to be a different sort of album for The Cardigans, a record that swapped warmth for coldness, whilst retaining all that glorious melody because Peter Svensson couldn’t not write a catchy song. He’s that good. The songs Nina and Peter wrote were tales of obsession, paranoia, and dead romance. Of course this wasn’t new for them, not exactly. But where Lovefool is essentially a sad love song, it has the benefit of a bubblegum pop sound. The songs on Gran Turismo made no such accommodation. Erase/Remind, Hanging Around, Explode, Paralyzed are all defiantly downbeat.
Then there’s My Favourite Game. The song that launched the album. The guitars are insistent, you really can’t get away from them. The song is mind-warpingly catchy. And it became a hit. The band tried their best to sabotage it, of course. Jonas Åkerlund directed the video, which was controversial at the time for showing Nina commit suicide on the road after a fabulous joyride. I thought it was hilarious. Bleak and funny, why didn’t the boring censors get the joke? This was a cool song. Actually, the visuals for this album were all absolutely perfect. The Cardigans were always very strong in their aesthetic.
19th October 2008 saw the international release of Gran Turismo. Unfortunately for Nina, it became a huge success, the biggest success so far for The Cardigans. Three million copies sold worldwide. Deservedly so. It isn’t my favourite Cardigans album (it is up there, but I usually go for Life as top tier Cardigans) but it’s the one I find myself listening to more and more. It works as a soundtrack for #Lockdown far better than other Cardigans albums. Maybe that’s my current mood? In the end, Gran Turismo showed critics and fans that The Cardigans weren’t just the Lovefool popsters. It set them free of an image they felt trapped in and put the band a new direction. During an interview with The Herald about the recent reunion tour of Gran Turismo, Nina said something that stuck with me. She said, “I had a great time. But I was not happy.” That, for me, is Gran Turismo encapsulated. An unhappy great time.