If the name Nina Persson doesn’t ring a bell, I’m fairly certain that the sound of her voice would. She’s the front woman of both The Cardigans and A Camp, you see. Not sure who those bands are? Perhaps the name of The Cardigans’ most successful single will ring a bell: “Lovefool.” It was a number 1 hit in the U.S. and the U.K. and sold over 2.5 million copies. (It reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Airplay and Top 40 Mainstream charts.) And this was at least half a decade before iTunes was around, probably around the time that people were just checking out Napster or Kazaa for the first time. But we all know how frustrating it could be to try to download something from those early p2p services, so I doubt The Cardigans lost many sales to downloads. That said, if iTunes had already been around, then they probably would have sold another million copies because it would have been so easy for listeners to just make a few clicks and buy it. And “Lovefool” has always been one of those timeless pop songs that you hear once and want to listen to again and again. But then that’s a quality that rings true of many songs by The Cardigans. “My Favourite Game,” “Erase/Rewind,” “I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need To Be Nicer,” and “For What It’s Worth” are just some examples of their uber-catchy songs. As for A Camp, I think people tend to listen to their two albums in their entirety, rather than cherry-picking singles. And they’ve never seemed to receive the heavy label promotion that The Cardigans received at their peak, being more of a band that was — and remains — popular largely among serious music junkies. They’re certainly a big deal in the good ol’ blogosphere.
Nina’s last album was A Camp’s 2009 release, Colonia, but in the years since she’s kept busy collaborating with a wide variety of artists, such as Manic Street Preachers, Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse, and The Cake Sale Collective (an artists’ community including Nick Seymour of Crowded House.) She also recorded the Serge Gainsbourg classic “Sorry Angel” for the Monsieur Gainsbourg tribute album.
Animal Heart is Nina’s solo debut. She wrote the album with her husband Nathan Larson (A Camp, Shudder To Think), and Eric D. Johnson (The Shins, Fruit Bats). They approached the album in a somewhat casual manner, hanging out at Nina and Nathan’s house in Harlem, writing and playing the songs with just a drum machine, a guitar and a piano before they headed into the studio.
The album opens with the title track, “Animal Heart,” a song that should equally please fans of The Cardigans and A Camp, as it would seem to split the difference between the two. Musically, it’s a bit more in the vein of The Cardigans with its pop hooks, but the gravity of the lyrics would seem closer to A Camp. In any case, it’s a song that is immediately addictive, yet it’s also one of those gems that you find more and more infectious with each listen. It’s like drinking a glass of fine wine that tastes better and better with each sip.
The following track, the piano-centric “Burning Bridges for Fuel,” is much more in the A Camp vein. One can appreciate Nina’s soulful lyrics and vocals immediately, but the song overall might require a few spins before it fully takes hold of you, being relatively downtempo and melancholic.
One of the first songs we were treated to from the album is “Food for the Beast,” which recently debuted on Paste and has something of a new wave vibe, particularly during the verses with its assorted synths and loops. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one that sounds the most like The Cardigans. In fact, it would have fit right at home on their album Long Gone Before Daylight, which found the band returning to their rather organic roots after the electro-smash Gran Turismo (this writer’s favorite album by The Cardigans).
Among the album’s strongest tracks is the bittersweet “Dreaming of Houses,” a vivid song that is especially personal to Nina because dreaming about houses, and thinking about spaces and architecture, is one of the things that helped inspire her when she was writing the album. And she’s recently stated that her dreams often involve rooms and houses, and how she’ll occasionally find a door she’s never opened. “Maybe dreaming of houses can save me,” she sings during the up-tempo chorus before asking a lover why he’s left her. She plays the part of a wounded woman so well you’d never guess that she’s been happily married for years now.
Another highlight is “The Grand Destruction Game.” At first listen, the Fleetwood Mac-ish mid-tempo track might not grab you, but it’s ultimately one of the most memorable tracks on the album because of Nina’s wistful lyrics, which would seem to be about how falling in love can be your downfall, how falling in love is like playing a grand destruction game. It’s also enjoyable because the lyrics tell a story, as do the lyrics of many other songs on the album, which is one of the things that make it such a rich record.
If there’s an unusual song on the album, it’s “Catch Me Cryin’,” which very much has a disco vibe. All it would really take to make it an actual disco song would be raising the level of the bass guitar. Otherwise, it’s an entirely danceable song that easily could have been a smash in the late ’70′s or early ’80′s. Definitely something Donna Summer could have sang. It also reminds one of Blondie, particularly their more energetic tracks like “Hangin’ on the Telephone” and “Heart of Glass” and Nina would seem to be channeling Debbie Harry here, her voice light and seductive even as she sings the song’s serious lyrics.
One thing that must be said about Animal Heart is that it’s more of a singer/songwriter album than anything Nina has done in the past. I’ve always found her to be a brilliant songwriter, but since most of her songs with The Cardigans were pop, she’s never really seemed to get the appreciation she deserves. But Animal Heart has more in common with Carole King and Stevie Nicks than what one thinks of as pop, so perhaps now she’ll finally get the recognition she deserves.
Right now, you can get the radio version of “Animal Heart” for free on The End Records free sampler album on Amazon. It’s a fantastic sampler full of great tunes by artists like The Dandy Warhols, American Sharks, The Mission and Massive Attack collaborator Davidge.