Happy 20th Anniversary to The Cardigans’ fourth studio album Gran Turismo, originally released October 19, 1998.
Emmerdale, the debut album from the Swedish pop-rock group The Cardigans, was quietly released on the indie imprint Trampolene Records in 1994 in their native Sweden and in Japan. Produced by Tore Johansson, Emmerdale platformed The Cardigans’ taste for retro ‘60s pop grooves matched to contemporaneous rock musicianship. This was to say nothing of their acerbic lyricism.
The enterprising quintet—Bengt Lagerberg (drums), Lars-Olof Johansson (keyboards), Magnus Sveningsson (bass), Peter Svensson (lead guitar), and Nina Persson (lead vocals)—expanded on Emmerdale’s sonic pathway with their second (1995’s Life) and third (1996’s First Band on the Moon) LPs on the larger label houses of Stockholm and Mercury Records.
Suddenly, by 1997, The Cardigans’ global profile had been raised high for all to see.
What they hadn’t counted on was that some listeners—and some critics—wouldn’t grasp the ironic humor The Cardigans had sewn into their material. As such, some fans and pundits mistook their usage of vintage pop for kitsch. This provided portions of the music press an out to dismiss the group’s first three efforts as pleasant, but ultimately disposable. Backed into a stylish corner of their own making, The Cardigans decided to move the dial toward their darker, exploratory non-single fare from Emmerdale, Life and First Band on the Moon often obscured by the larger (and lighter) hits from these collections.
Work on Gran Turismo, The Cardigans’ fourth album, began in early-to-mid 1998 and saw Tore Johansson return to the producer’s seat to assist the band in achieving their vision for a layered, weightier sound. As the sessions began picking up speed, The Cardigans whipped up a heavy and stormy aural composite of modern rock and electronic aesthetics—a significant departure from the overall sweet-faced vibes of their initial records.
Coming in succinctly at eleven tracks, Gran Turismo possesses the breadth and grandiosity of a double album. Much of this rests on how The Cardigans build their songs. Take the chameleonic, rhythmic foundation of the effort, forged from the percussion, bass and programming skills of Lagerberg, Sveningsson and Johansson. Said foundation can form itself to whatever unique lyrical or melodic set-up the tracks call for. Whether it is the late-night, alt-pop glide of “Erase/Rewind,” the electro crawl of “Higher” or the rapid-fire rock and roll bluster of “My Favourite Game”—all the music on Gran Turismo lends itself to a cinematic gait.
Songwriting wise, Gran Turismo evinces continual involvement from the outfit’s frontwoman, Nina Persson. In the beginning on Emmerdale, the lyrics were almost evenly divided between Peter Svensson and Magnus Sveningsson. But on Life and First Band on the Moon, more writing tasks were fielded from the other three members of the group in relation to the arranging and words; notably Persson stepped up for the latter.
Gran Turismo finds Persson joining with Svensson to form an uncanny match. Their works are rich, fully realized narratives that venture into restlessness (“Junk of Hearts”), romantic obsession (“Paralyzed,” “Hanging Around”) and other various states of emotional distress and ennui (“Explode”). Topically, this isn’t necessarily new ground for them, but there is no veneer of bubbly melodies and grooves. Instead, they go hand in glove to the shadowy soundtrack sprawl of new musical backdrops created in earnest for this record. Vocally, Persson taps into her range by opening it up on pieces such as “Paralyzed” and “My Favourite Game,” but she never loses that trademark coquettish zing.
Now, solely sanctioned by Stockholm Records, Gran Turismo was given its international rollout on October 19th, 1998. The album made a splash, exceeding the commercial and critical marks made by its predecessor First Band on the Moon in British and European markets. Three singles—“My Favourite Game,” “Erase/Rewind,” and “Hanging Around”—jumped right off of the record to become staples on the airwaves and in the charts for those respective territories.
One month later, America received Gran Turismo. Faithful fans and the general alternative rock/pop outlets took to it fast; critics were unmoved though, some of them unnecessarily harsh in lazily writing off the five-piece’s recent transformation as a symptom of taking themselves “too seriously.”
The Cardigans were unbothered by haughty stateside tastemakers and trekked onward with the requisite gigging to support their fourth LP. Two more amazing projects in Long Gone Before Daylight and Super Extra Gravity emerged in 2003 and 2005 respectively, before The Cardigans placed a moratorium on any further collective recording activities. Though there have been a few small reunions—including a recent 20th anniversary commemorative tour for Gran Turismo—no plans for a full-on return in the studio have materialized.
Even with their diminutive discography, each album from The Cardigans stands as inventive and immersive affairs. But, Gran Turismo was the moment when the group pivoted from the safety of expectation and set off toward the horizons of the musical unknown—its boldness has lost none of its power.