People sometimes express a liking for music that conveys what might be termed “decadent elegance.” They vibe they’re grasping for is one that’s equal parts scuzz and beauty. It’s an elusive quality, and far too often, those musicians who – consciously or otherwise – try to capture it lean too far one way or the other. The decadent end of it gives you Nico-era Velvet Underground or the unrelenting angst of early Nine Inch Nails; the other direction gives something that at times can be a bit too “pretty,” like, say, Fiona Apple.
On rare occasions, the balance is just right. So it was sometimes with The Cardigans. And on both of their albums – their self-titled 2001 debut and 2009’s near-flawless Colonia – Sweden’s’ A Camp nailed it. And as it happens, both of those groups feature the voice and compositional skills of Nina Persson. So it’s not a surprise of earthshaking proportions that on Animal Heart, her 2014 solo debut, Persson refines that approach to a fine point.
The album kicks off with the title track, a propulsive dance pop-meets-motorik melody topped by Persson’s crystalline vocal mixed way out front. Her degree of vocal control is superb: she hits the notes with precision, adding her trademark vibrato only at key moments; she’s careful not to overuse the technique, saving it for when it fits best. That the song has a delightfully memorable hook – in the form of the tune’s repeated vocal refrain – makes it even better.
“Burning Bridges for Fuel” starts with a somber, one-per-measure piano chord, joined gradually by throbbing synth, Persson’s dreamy vocal, and other exceedingly subtle flourishes. The drums don’t come in until halfway through the tune, and even then, they don’t do much. Nor need they: the synthesizer lines provide as much of a beat as is needed. Some nice Leslie’d guitar near the song’s outro has the feeling of a horn section.
“Dreaming of Houses” starts off as an elegiac, grey-day melody, but unfolds into a pop song of grandeur. Listeners who didn’t know better would never think Persson is Swedish; her vocals betray not a trace of being from anywhere specific. “Clip Your Wings” is a more conventional pop tune, but some echoey piano and slide guitar elevate the tune into something more durable.
Electronica textures might at first seem out of place on a tune called “Jungle,” until one sorts out that the jungle is but Persson’s metaphor for modern life. On this track – as with all others on Animal Heart – Persson is ably supported by husband Nathan Larson, Eric D. Johnson and (on most tracks) drummer Brain Kantor. Johnson and Larsson co-wrote all but one of the twelve songs with Persson.
“Food for the Beast” takes a different approach than the tunes that precede it: its radio-ready beat seems designed for airplay, and lyrics about the discotheque floor reinforce that impression. But once again, it’s Persson’s voice that carries the whole affair. A constantly shifting beat shows that even on a “commercial” number, Persson remains musically ambitious.
The brief instrumental “Digestif” gives way to “Forgot to Tell You,” a tune that recalls some of Colonia‘s more close and intimate musical arrangements. “Catch Me Crying” is built upon a stuttering drum pattern and feels a bit like Autoamerican era Blondie; here Persson displays her knack of showing off her vocal range without seeming at all like she’s showing off.
Americana-flavored guitar kicks off “The Grand Destruction Game,” but it’s quickly joined by synthesizer and 60s-flavored combo organ. Persson’s wistful lyric tells the tale of love gone wrong. The stately “Silver” reveals its charms gradually, as it unfolds across three-plus minutes (Persson’s direct, economical writing style keeps all of Animal Heart‘s tunes relatively brief: only two break the four-minute mark.) And despite its title, “This is Heavy Metal” closes the album in a spare yet sophisticated manner – simply piano and vocal – that recalls Tori Amos‘ best work.
Animal Heart was released back in February of this year; it charted in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the UK. Despite some stateside press and reviews, it hasn’t made a dent on American charts; it deserves better. Recommended.
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