Front Page Reviews & AIR
The Cardigans - Long Gone Before Daylight
To say that The Cardigans’ Long Gone Before Daylight is my favorite album released by a Swedish artist during the 00s would be both true and kind of silly. While I love the album, I’m also rather painfully out of touch with the Swedish music scene (which is one reason I’m thankful for this month’s recommendations here at the Mule). As far as the 00s go, I guess I was aware that The Hives were from Sweden, but after the mountainous hype surrounding their arrival in the U.S., I was disappointed with the lack of imagination in the Swedish quartet’s painfully derivative Kinks impression. And beyond The Hives and The Cardigans, I’m not sure I could name a Swedish artist that I heard during that decade (I didn’t hear Lykke Li or Dear Companion or Joel Alme until the last couple of years), which is kind of sad considering the fact that I’m about 25% Swedish. Maybe it’s time for me to get back to my roots…
In any event, before discussing the merits of Long Gone Before Daylight, let me address a couple of the reasons the album flopped in America. First off, the only Cardigans reference point for most Americans was their aggressively annoying one-hit-wonder “Lovefool” which had saturated the airwaves back in 1997. It was because of that particularly awful song that when a friend recommended the “new Cardigans album” to me in April of 2004, I ignored the recommendation completely. Also, I should probably point out that Long Gone Before Daylight was incredibly out of step with its time. Just as the under-produced indie ethic of out-of-tune guitars, cracked voices, and missed notes was coming into its own, The Cardigans released a lush, meticulously produced record featuring a competent band, a singer with a beautiful voice, and smart, well-crafted songs with thought-provoking lyrics. In the heady days of the early 00s, those qualities were almost universally seen as negatives by the tastemakers. And given the lack of indie artists doing what The Cardigans were doing, trying to make a positive case for Long Gone Before Daylight at the time might have sounded something like this, “It sounds kind of like Dido—who you probably hate, I know… except the songs are really good, the vocal performance is moving, and the songs are played by an actual band rather than studio musicians.” In other words, not exactly a ringing endorsement. Looking back, it’s no wonder the album never even cracked the Billboard 200.
But luckily for me, the song “You’re the Storm” made it onto one of my brother’s mix CDs in either the summer of 2004 or 2005. Soon, all my siblings were listening to Long Gone Before Daylight, and it wasn’t long before I’d borrowed it, burned it, and put it into heavy rotation. The first thing that strikes you about the album is that it sounds great. It’s just plain nice to listen to. What was criticized as “slick” or “polished” production when the album was released has held up remarkably well over time (and let’s be honest, if you’re using Bright Eyes as your measuring stick, any production at all is going to sound “polished”). And I think this has as much to do with the quality of the songs as it does with the production itself. The subtlety and attention to detail in the arrangements are accurate reflections of the complex and nuanced nature of the songs themselves. For instance, beneath the sheen of the seemingly innocuous opening track, “Communication”, there is a lingering darkness, conveyed through a cleverly rendered heroin reference, and a world-weary acceptance of disconnection as the norm. And that’s in one of the more innocuous tracks. By the time we get to the deceptively titled “And Then You Kissed Me”, we’re into some really dark territory. It soon becomes apparent that the imagery being used—“it hits me like never before,” “it struck me that love is a sport,” “the halo around my eye,” etc.—are references to actual physical abuse rather than just plays on words. The song’s real achievement is its ability to mingle the brutal realities of abuse with a sultry sexiness and desire, creating a window into the mind and heart of a victim of abuse that is more convincing than a mere criticism or complaint. There is real conflict here, real confusion; real love and real pain.
In fact, it is the contrast of lead singer and lyricist Nina Presson’s undeniable sexiness with the album’s dark subject matter that lends Long Gone Before Daylight its depth and believability. The album’s most infectious track, the blatantly anthemic “You’re the Storm”, seems to be a straightforward love song. But again, a “storm” isn’t exactly a benign object of affection, and Presson’s opening description of her lover as a “devil” who “strikes me down” colors her vulnerably sexual response, “Come raise your flag upon me/If you want me, I’m your country.” In contrast to the formulaic albums that it drew unfair comparison to, the songs on Long Gone Before Daylight ring true as accurate reflections of the fact that the vitality of life often coexists with the darkness of violence. They speak to actual experience rather than lazy clichés. And so when we finally reach the potentially overwrought sentiments of “Lead Me Into The Night” and “03.45: No Sleep,” Presson has earned the right to express those sentiments plainly. They carry more weight, given what has come before.
All told, Long Gone Before Daylight is a remarkably consistent album, one of those precious gems you can listen to all the way through without any prolonged dips in quality. It is also a mood album, its own self-enclosed world with a painstakingly created sound all its own that compliments the nuanced subject matter. And it’s a shame so few people are aware of it. If only this album had been the American hit, and “Lovefool” relegated to the scrap bin of history. Luckily, the Swedes themselves got it right. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Long Gone Before Daylight went double platinum in Sweden, far outselling any other Cardigans album, perhaps proving once and for all that the Swedes really do have superior musical taste to Americans.