Happy 20th Anniversary to The Cardigans’ third studio album First Band on the Moon, originally released internationally September 17, 1996.
In the interest of full disclosure, The Cardigans are one of my favorite bands. Of all time. Not to mention that I consider Nina Persson to be one of the most gifted and criminally underappreciated singer-songwriters of the past 25 years, as the past few Cardigans albums, as well as her pair of A Camp LPs (2001’s A Camp and 2009’s Colonia) and 2014 solo album Animal Heart, provide more than enough testament to. So yeah, this is an unabashedly biased tribute, devoid of any objective critical eye. And that’s just fine by me.
Why, you may be asking, do The Cardigans command such a beloved place in my heart? Well, for starters, they’ve evolved their sound in thrilling, unexpected ways over their nearly three decades long career. Formed by Peter Svensson (guitar), Magnus Sveningsson (bass), Bengt Lagerberg (drums), Lars-Olof Johansson (keyboard), and Nina Persson (lead vocals) in Jönköping, Sweden in 1992, the quintet have never settled for the tried and true. Instead, they’ve continually challenged themselves musically, redefining and refining their songcraft with each successive album and side project.
Regrettably, way too many people possess little more than a cursory knowledge of the band, immediately and myopically associating them with their massive 1996 hit single “Lovefool,” thanks in no small part to its inclusion on the 1996 soundtrack to Baz Luhrman’s vibrant Romeo + Juliet remake. While it’s one of the more exciting straight-ahead pop songs of the contemporary era, “Lovefool” is more anomalous than emblematic within the broader context of The Cardigans’ entire recorded repertoire comprised of six studio albums to date.
Largely propelled by buoyant, addictively catchy lounge-pop, the band’s first pair of albums, 1994’s Emmerdale and 1995’s Life, caught fire in their native Sweden and Japan, but remained relatively obscure indulgences across the rest of Europe and North America. Emmerdale was originally released only in Sweden and then seven months later in Japan, finally appearing in Europe and North America as a reissued version five years later in 1999. As a result, the European and North American versions of Life included a handful of songs featured on its precursor, including “Celia Inside,” “Our Space,” "Over the Water,” "Rise and Shine,” "Sick and Tired," and the group’s interpolation of Black Sabbath’s 1973 single "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath."
Produced by Tore Johansson (New Order, Saint Etienne), who produced its two precursors as well, The Cardigans’ third album First Band on the Moon arrived in mid-September 1996 and reflected the band’s evolving confidence and musical maturation at the time. Featuring eleven tracks, all co-written by Svensson with Persson lending her pen to six, the album is most immediately defined by its seemingly paradoxical juxtaposition of swinging, upbeat soundscapes with darker, more melancholy subject matter. The Cardigans’ signature strong suit, in other words.
The aforementioned “Lovefool,” which propelled First Band on the Moon to unexpected commercial heights (including the band’s only platinum certification in the US to date), is pure, exquisitely produced pop perfection. Let’s just get this fact out of the way, right off the bat.
Featuring one of the more inescapable choruses of recent memory, the yearning, disco drum-tinged ode to delusion and desperation in love was the first song that Persson ever wrote, while awaiting her departing flight in an airport lounge no less. "At the time it sounded more like a slow bossa nova," she explained to The Guardian in 2012. "Often it's the songs that come to you quickly and easily that become the biggest.”
But beyond their most recognizable single’s undeniable brilliance, First Band on the Moon boasts a handful of songs that are more intriguing and, to be quite honest, even more brilliant. The third and final single released from the album, “Your New Cuckoo” opens the affair with a guitar-driven, swinging groove, as Persson spies her lover on an escapade with his new paramour, not so affectionately referred to as his “new cuckoo.”
The melodic, midtempo second single “Been It” finds Persson exploring the disillusionment of unreciprocated love and support, with the biting admission in the chorus that “I've been your mother, I've been your father / Who can ask me for more? / I've been your sister, I've been your mistress / Maybe I was your whore.” Sustaining the more fevered energy level of the album’s first half, “Never Recover” is an addictively propulsive exploration of post-breakup psychosis.
A number of other standouts can be heard in the LP’s more subdued fare, beginning with the subversive “Heartbreaker,” with Persson embracing the role of “vacant and free” ice queen as she documents her penchant for the ephemeral seduction of a one-night stand. Adopting a more endearingly sweet tone is “Happy Meal II,” a tender portrait of the adrenaline-fueled anticipation preceding a first date, with Persson softly crooning “Arrange my books in order / Make up some nice stories to amuse you / Make things look smart and easy / Shape up the place” in the opening verse.
One of the more beguiling songs is the band’s cover of Black Sabbath’s 1971 classic “Iron Man, their second such homage to Ozzy and crew, and at least musically if not lyrically, a largely unrecognizable reimagination of the austere original. Also noteworthy is the self-awareness anthem “Losers,” which encourages the shrugging off of others’ perceptions and arbitrary peer pressure to be cool, in exchange for being comfortable in your own skin.
In a 1997 interview, Magnus Sveningsson insisted that “The next album will sound different, because all albums have different atmospheres. Although we don’t know what it’s going tosound like, it’s probably going to sound quite different. We still hope that people will hear The Cardigans of course, but it could sound like anything.” More prescient words have seldom been spoken, as the group thankfully refused to conform to First Band on the Moon’s proven approach with their next three albums. Indeed, Gran Turismo (1998), Long Gone Before Daylight (2003), and Super Extra Gravity (2005) are each unique musical statements and testament to The Cardigans’ restless artistry and adventurous yet sophisticated songcraft.
While neither the first of The Cardigans’ albums I heard, nor my personal favorite of their long players (more on this to come via a special Albumism article slated for next month), First Band on the Moon is the album that made me fall madly in love with their music. And it’s a love that endures just as fervently twenty years later.