The concept of contradiction is having its moment right now. Leaving aside the most obvious example of its grip on our lives – the both grave and farcical presidential scandal – one telling sign that the current zeitgeist is all about contradiction, is that Contradiction is the newest fragrance by ever zeitgeist-minded Calvin Klein.

Or, consider the Cardigans. They come from Sweden, the land of long, black, winter nights, Ingmar Bergman and – inexplicably – the ditziest pop acts of each of the last three decades (see ABBA, Roxette and Ace of Base, respectively). Piling contradiction on top of contradiction, the Cardigans’ pop is noted for its cool sophistication; they have almost single-handedly wrestled down Sweden’s bad-pop reputation.

Which is also bizarre, given the band’s history. The brainchild of two metalheads – bassist Magnus Sveningsson and composer and guitarist Peter Svensson – the Cardigans broke aboveground with their second album, Life, a frothy, retro-pop cocktail featuring vocalist Nina Persson modeling a "Gidget-goes-to-the-Ice-Capades" look on the cover, and songs with titles like "Carnival" and "Rise and Shine." Life also included the band’s sugary rendition of Black Sabbath’s "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath."

Persson’s blithely cynical lyrics and deadpan vocals on the shimmery disco megahit "Lovefool," from the Cardigans’ third album, First Band on the Moon, elicited yet more confusion. While critics worried that pert, blond Nina suffered from "emotional masochism," teen mags chronicled her shopping expeditions, swooned over the four chic-and-chiseled male bandmembers and helped swell the Cardigans’ popularity among the Di Caprio-loving, pop-bopping set.

Over the phone from Sweden, Svensson confesses to some frustration: "People really misunderstand us," he sighs. "Some people come up and pat me on the back and say, ‘Oh you guys are so great – your music always makes me so happy,’ or they say, ‘oh you’re so ... ironic.’ Either way, they’ve missed the point, you know?

"But on the other hand," he continues, "there are people who tell us how much they love our music because it’s so moody and dark … I don’t know if they get us any more than the ‘happy’ people do, but I have to admit I’m more comfortable with people who think we’re totally dark, because that’s definitely closer to the truth."

Svensson explains that the band abandoned both the purposeful complications and retro sound of the two previous albums when recording its latest full-length, Gran Turismo, a more austere effort by any measure.

"This album is much heavier than the others," he notes. "And even though we used a lot of loops and electronic equipment for the first time, I think it’s simpler, too – there’s no extra instruments like on the other albums, and I wrote all the songs around the same time, so they have pretty much the same feeling. It’s a unit."

"You know," Svensson continues, "our first record, Emmerdale, was really deep and melancholy, and we were criticized for being too serious. So we went in completely the opposite direction, started doing all these bouncy rhythms, strange chords, tempo changes – we’d make these really weird arrangements. But we were never really comfortable with that sound.

"Maybe that’s why we had so many songs where there was a conflict between the lyrics and the music. Now we’re totally serious again, so they work together," he concludes.

Though the Cardigans’ sound may have changed – and changed again – since they recorded Emmerdale, some of that record’s trademarks carry through. The band continues to work with producer Tore Johansson, who introduced the band to the vintage instruments and recording equipment used on all of its albums. And, if Persson’s vocals have grown more assured, they are nonetheless as diffident as ever. Her lyrics still probe love’s delusions and defeats. Equally consistent is the elegance of the arrangements on all the Cardigans’ work, old and new. The industrial-edged and trippy folk songs that make up Gran Turismo are as precisely and gracefully orchestrated as any of the deceptively complex, multi-instrumental, lounge-rock ditties on Life.

"There are a lot of things that are the same," agrees Svensson. "This album doesn’t sound retro, but even with all the technology we used making it, I still think the songs are very organic and very personal. It’s new Cardigans and old Cardigans at the same time, I guess. Maya Singer frequently writes about music for the Metro Times. Send comments to

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