Steady as She Goes
You probably know Nina Persson as the singer of the Swedish pop group The Cardigans. If you haven’t heard their catching single “Lovefool” then you haven’t listened to the radio for the past 18 years. Persson’s first official solo LP–that is, her first release under her real name, not with the side-project A Camp–is not exactly a departure from her musical modus operandi. But who in their right mind would ask for something “new” from her, anyway? Animal Heart is not really about reinvention, after all. It’s about making a good thing last. But this time around, it’s personal.
For those who think back tenderly to the era of ’90s pop, this record will leave you tipsy with a rare combination of nostalgia and new material. To be fair, Persson does do some relatively new, exciting things. A very brief experiment called “Digestif,” for instance, is pleasantly weird and unexpected. An opening cuckoo-clock riff assures you that it is the center of the song. But by the time the drums, bass and organ kick in–in a totally different key–you realize something shifty is going on. Likewise, the closing track, curiously titled “This is Heavy Metal,” is a languid piano ballad worthy of a jazz lounge. You probably weren’t expecting that, right? What makes the album fresh, however, has less do with these surprising moments, and everything to do with how personal it is.
For example, Animal Heart opens with the title track. That’s a hint: To fully “get” the record, we should appreciate what Persson means by “animal heart.” Psych majors will no doubt arrive at the following question: Is she, like, talking about the id? The song, like much of the record, does take its musical cues from the libidinous genre we call Disco. But it’s not really a dance song or a sexy song (if there is a difference between the two today). It’s romantic. Persson urges her guy to be her “man” and “bail” the dance floor with her. Evidently, her animal instincts have told her to do so. But she also tells him to “dampen” his own impulses while she “keeps the snakes at bay.” So sure, Animal Heart is about deep, dark stuff. But Persson handles it with such a gentle touch. The result is as tender and sexy as The Cardigans’ songs we love, with the added benefit of more intimately connecting us with the singer.
Animal Heart, despite its little detours, never veers completely from the path blazed by The Cardigans. “The Grand Destruction,” for instance, is folky, led by the rare appearance of an acoustic guitar. But, like the rest of the album, it’s ultimately dominated by the synth-pop style Persson has developed with her band through the years. Formulaic? Perhaps. Is that a bad thing? Not if the formula was right to begin with. And it was.