You need only to compare Long Gone Before Midnight
's cover to 1995's Life
to know that The Cardigans have made a 180 degree stylistic turn. The lighting has changed from overexposed to chiaroscuro and candlelit. Nina Persson is no longer the band's sole representative, posing like a sex kitten in a powder blue ice skating outfit while the male contingent languishes in a series of highly stylized photos inside the booklet. All of the band members now sit comfortably around a dinner table littered with picked-over plates and bottles of wine. Superficially, Persson has gone from effervescent blond to introspective brunette, but The Cardigans at their most plastic still harbored cynicism and moodiness somewhere below the surface. Now the balance is inverted: there are moments of earnest fun and pop perfection among these more serious songs.
Long Gone feels like it was actually recorded in the candle-strewn grotto in which the band is pictured. It is more personal, lyrically speaking, than any of their previous work. The exquisitely penned "And Then You Kissed Me" details an abusive relationship; if it's not an actual first-person account, nails the ebb and flow of a violent love affair. "Hold Me", a mere 30 seconds of finger-picked acoustic guitar and Persson's heart-rending vocals, is among the most eloquently simple statements on the contradictory human fears of abandonment and overwhelmedness; Persson pleads, "Leave me, leave me alone, but don't ever let me go." Her voice, always a treat, has blossomed into a bittersweet wisp of smoke, and like T.S. Eliot's "Yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes," her vocals "curl once about the house and fall asleep" as she belts out drowsy ballads like "If There is a Chance" and mellow pop confections like "For What it's Worth".
Instrumentally, the group is less idiosyncratic, opting for luminescent string sections and harmonica detail rather than whistles and vibraphones. Strangely enough, it never made me miss the old Cardigans (well, maybe just for a moment or two...). Most of the time, it feels like I've watched this pretty little group of Swedes grow up, and the evolution seems smooth and natural. Gran Turismo hinted at Long Gone's somberness -- it's just that here, the music is much simpler and more organic. If I want to hear irrepressibly hooky basslines, plucky dance beats, glossy organs and guitars, I have the old albums. The Cardigans may try on different styles, but they leave their stamp on everything they do. Whether they're writing chart-topping hits or quietly brooding musical storms, they have an undeniable gift for song structure and melody.
The DVD's interviews, videos and concert footage will delight fans old and new. In a featured interview, by way of explanation for the group's stylistic change, bassist Magnus Sveningsson says, "Gran Turismo sounds like it does because most members in the band started to listen to bands like Soundgarden and Radiohead and...the Pumpkins." Before recording the new album, they went back to "the same old music: Neil Young, The Band and Van Morrison." Nina Persson calls Long Gone "Brighter" than Gran Turismo, though it's still full of "melancholy and darkness"; she adds, "it's mainly warmer and more understanding." Indeed, the sound is warmer and more intimate than the precise kitsch-jazz pop that made The Cardigans famous.
When I first heard Long Gone Before Daylight (at a listening station at a record store in Europe a year ago), I almost didn't recognize the group. "They sound like Fleetwood Mac!" I thought. Now, after repeated listenings, I wouldn't hesitate to say that Long Gone is The Cardigans' Rumours. A sensitive, fully mature contribution to the pop music lexicon, it proves that, like the rare child actor who actually works well into adulthood, The Cardigans have weathered a difficult transition.