Nina Persson has kept herself quiet these past few years. It’s a shame given that The Cardigans’ singer possesses one of the most distinctive voices in pop, strong while requiring none of the bombastic bellowing of Florence Welch and effortlessly emotive without Beyoncé’s often migraine-inducing, multi-tracked melisma. Restricting herself to guest appearances, Persson’s most noteworthy contributions of late have been to a track on Dark Night of the Soul, the 2009 collaboration between Danger Mouse and the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse and a scene-stealing performance on the Manics’ Your Love Alone Is Not Enough.
This is the singer’s first solo effort away from The Cardigans and her side-project A Camp, written and produced by Persson alongside her partner Nathan Larson, a novelist who also performs with her in A Camp and Eric D. Johnson, known for Fruit Bats and his tenure in The Shins. Unsurprisingly the record features at its core the great melodic sensibility that has characterised all of Persson’s work, favouring minor chords, uncommon progressions and the tendency to let lyrics run beyond the standard pop meter. Animal Heart collects twelve tracks of smart, sophisticated pop that can make for easy going but hardly signpost the way. Hooks here are subtle and unlikely to be as stuck in the memory as say, the latest Katy Perry release (but then that’s their design), they only really dig in after repeated listens but such is the quality of their songcraft, that’s hardly a detractor.
In essence this album is further evidence as to why The Cardigans never escaped mere cult fandom in the UK, belying their superstar status in their native Sweden. The secret truth is that Persson’s band’s biggest and most well-known hits Lovefool and My Favourite Game are as representative of their complete catalogue as The Laughing Gnome is of David Bowie’s. OK, that may be a touch exaggerated, but allow me a moment to explain. As a young lad, I bought The Cardigans’ Gran Turismo and on its first play (as kids are wont to do) impatiently skipped to track two to then-current single Erase/Rewind. As that piece of masterful, elegiac ‘90s pop wound down, an icy synth and a claustrophobic drum machine sent a chill down my spine as the following track began. Reminiscent of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine yet more threadbare and unsettling and worlds away from any chamber or guitar pop I might have expected, Explode’s nursery rhyme-like tune has Persson imploring you to “explode or implode” like she could care less either way. Needless to say, it was a bit of a shock, still probably the most surprising tonal shift I’ve ever heard on any album and The Cardigans’ career in microcosm. It took me a while to eventually fall in love with that album back then but crucially, I still do 16 years on.
There’s a similar bait-and-switch at the beginning of Animal Heart. The title track opens proceedings with an immediately catchy Cyndi Lauper-esque flourish of ‘80s synths and slide guitar before the following tracks settle into a gentle AOR groove. The songs are pleasant enough however there’s a distinct lack of momentum. It may be my over-familiarity with the tiresome mechanics of modern pop where everything needs to be four-on-the-floor Europop or even more fashionably disco (thanks Daft Punk) or something else far more jaded, but even I started to pine for a sequenced beat or a hi-hat so restrained is the tempo. Food for the Beast injects some energy, the marimba and accordion of its verses combining with a galloping rhythm section for a triumphant ABBA-indebted chorus beginning with the terrific line “All broken hearts baby, bring them to me”. That kind of romantic melancholia has been Persson’s bread and butter in The Cardigans for years and the pair of beautiful ballads Forgot to Tell You and Catch Me Cryin’ certainly fit that bill but there’s a greater thematic undercurrent musing on mortality in these songs. In the time since the last A Camp album in 2009, Persson has had a son with Larson and being a mother has clearly affected her worldview. Nowhere is that more apparent than on closer This Is Heavy Metal, sounding simultaneously maudlin and hopeful: “I will left [sic] a son who’ll stay on after I’m gone, he’ll be unbreakable by design”. It alongside The Grand Destruction Game are late standout tracks.
All in all, Animal Heart is a welcome return for Nina Persson and a truly worthy outing. It’s pop music that finds a middle ground that’s less plastic than Kylie and less arty than Kate Bush. It is also a great example of an artist who hasn’t stayed in stasis but rather matured and progressed as a songwriter, making it an even more rewarding listening experience. Give it a go, you never know, this could be one of your favourite albums 16 years from now.