Happy 20th Anniversary to Ace of Base’s third studio album Flowers, originally released June 15, 1998.
“Actually, it is our best album that we have done, but I don't know if people will think it's a hit, that's another thing.” This surprisingly candid comment from Jenny Berggren, one-fourth of the Swedish pop outfit Ace of Base, featured in a 1998 “behind the scenes” television documentary trailing the group's meteoric rise and the creation of Flowers, their third studio LP due for release that same year.
On one hand, the sobering reticence of Berggren's statement was anathema to Ace of Base's achievements up to that point. Packaging an electric mix of European pop, reggae rhythms and dance music on their debut album Happy Nation (1992) for the Mega Records imprint, Ace of Base were on to something groundbreaking. By 1994, Ace of Base had signed with the Clive Davis helmed Arista Records and Happy Nation was retooled into The Sign (1994) for the American market. In just three years time, Ulf Ekberg and the Berggren siblings Jonas, Malin and Jenny had conquered the world.
Set in the eye of the storm of international fame and success, Ace of Base banded closer together to unleash one of the finest sophomore sets ever, genres aside—The Bridge (1995). Dialing back on the clubbier tones of Happy Nation/The Sign, The Bridge embraced world music and a heavier existentialist stance. Far from a failure, its moodier feel left many critics and fans bemused—Ace of Base took a slight sales hit. It was enough to dampen anyone's confidence. Thankfully, Jenny and the rest of her groupmates did not let fear dictate the creative morale for the writing and recording of Flowers.
Vital to the record is its descriptive and eccentric songwriting. The quartet construct whole worlds of ennui and escapism for listeners to experience via “Travel to Romantis,” “Adventures in Paradise,” “Cecilia” and “Captain Nemo.” What's better is that these songs—and others on the LP—have hooks to spare that do not undermine the energy from their preceding verses. In particular, “Cecilia” boldly picks up where the Simon & Garfunkel tune of the same name left off in 1970, continuing her character arc. The track is also a show-stopping number for Jenny as she handles the principal vocal.
This exquisite song scripting, as well as the overall production duties, had become much more democratically split between all four members after The Bridge. Nevertheless, Jonas Berggren and Ulf Ekberg did set most of the lyrical and production pace for Flowers with a little bit of help from old friends and new faces.
Douglas Carr, Mike Chapman, John Ballard, Ole Evenrud, Stephen Hague, Mich “Cutfather” Hansen, Diane Warren and Charles Fisher were only a few of the notables working closely with Ace of Base in implementing the miscellany sounds exhibited on the long player. From classic Motown (“Always Have, Always Will”), to synth-pop (“Into the Night of Blue”) and gospel (“I Pray”), Ace of Base showcase their expertise at branching out. And while their established euro-reggae-dub formula is largely minimized here, it's spotlighted handsomely on the groovy “Dr. Sun.”
As Flowers neared completion, Ace of Base encountered last minute interference from their various labels in British (London Records), German (Polygram) and American (Arista) territories. In the spirit of compromise—and at the behest of label direction—Ace of Base recorded an engaging cover of the Bananarama gem “Cruel Summer.” Under Ace of Base's direction, they conceived two versions. One variant is closer to the originating take, albeit with a spike of hip-hop flavor for a bit of modish spunk; the second rendition is a surprisingly danceable, Spanish flecked trip.
The head of Arista, Clive Davis, was taken with Ace of Base's cover of “Cruel Summer” and excised the original album's name, retitling it Cruel Summer for its forthcoming unveiling in the United States. Further doctoring of the stateside variation of Ace of Base's third album under Davis' hand continued with his dismal overhaul of the poetic “Life is a Flower” as the generic “Whenever You're Near Me.” He also rejected “Dr. Sun” and “Captain Nemo” from the Cruel Summer tracklisting. In an attempt to stay Davis' desecrative hand, Ace of Base decided to tweak their existing songs their way. For Cruel Summer, Ace of Base disrobed the symphonic raiment of “Donnie” and costumed it in a sassy Motown print akin to “Always Have, Always Will,” while the lighter hip-hop bounce of “He Decides” is granted a more mercurial, electronic musculature.
Davis envisioned “Everytime It Rains”—an AOR ballad penned by Rick Nowels, Billy Steinburg and Maria Vidal—as a major score for Ace of Base. Slotting it onto Cruel Summer, he specifically requested Malin for the lead vocal. Frustrated to be strong-armed, Malin relented and put down a gorgeous vocal. An active participant in all artistic aspects of Ace of Base, it was the industry politics of the music business that she'd grown weary of. As she began to withdraw from the more public part of the Ace of Base structure, grueling promotional chores required for Flowers awaited them.
Released in its intended format internationally on June 15, 1998, America received its abbreviated configuration of Flowers—as Cruel Summer—in early September 1998. Flowers had been preceded by its inaugural single “Life Is a Flower,” one of their biggest European charters. Five more singles—“Cruel Summer,” “Travel to Romantis,” “Always Have, Always Will,” “Everytime It Rains,” and “Cecilia”—followed through to the next year and helped the album maintain a modest chart presence globally.
It was unfortunate that once their fourth album Da Capo (2002) hit the block, Ace of Base had fallen out of public favor. Eight years removed from Da Capo, their last LP The Golden Ratio (2010) introduced Julia Williamson and Clara Hagman in place of the Berggren sisters who had since stepped away from Ace of Base. Now that the inevitable Ace of Base revival has rolled around, a whole new generation is discovering the power in their unique form of pop music. Flowers is the most expressive collection from them, a true bouquet of styles and sounds that proves without question that Ace of Base were most assuredly not a ‘90s flash in the pan.