If anyone is campaigning to do the soundtrack for Sofia Coppola’s sequel to Marie Antoinette, a.k.a. Marie Antoinette II: How to Get A Head in Royalty Without Really Trying, it’s Nina Persson (heck, the album’s cover even features Persson’s seemingly severed noggin). So maybe there aren’t any songs with Burundi drums a la Adam & the Ants or Bow Wow Wow, or even any majestically dour post-punk anthems like “Ceremony” or “Hong Kong Garden,” but the spirit is there. Inspired by a trip to South Africa, and having witnessed the results of colonialism, Persson reconvened the members of her side project, A Camp, and, like a conquering nation herself, looked to explore territory that her original band, The Cardigans, could not. The original self-titled album from A Camp was Persson’s attempt to create a perfect modern country album, and for the most part, with the help of Mark Linkous, she succeeded. But, it’s been a long time since we’ve heard from A Camp, with a couple of middling Cardigans albums in between. Colonia is a mixed bag, covering all kinds of musical territory, but so many songs are gems, it’s difficult to complain too much.
Persson has described this album as a combination of the ’60s girl group sound and David Bowie. But, before you start getting visions of the Pipettes and Of Montreal, realize that every song portrait, no matter its flavor, is exquisitely painted in Persson’s coy and comely voice, singing lyrics weighted with wit and gravity. The opening waltz, “The Crowning,” is a lyrical update of “You’re So Vain,” but coloring her intended target with old school European imagery, and even going so far as to make an overt reference like, “We’re gonna party like it’s 1699.” We are then led directly into one of the more memorable tracks, the first single off the album, “Stronger Than Jesus.” Persson continues the theme of colonizing countries with lines like, “Love is a fire, a hot hot blaster / And we’re the Belgians burning in the Congo sun,” and “We’re believers trusting strangers / Any monkey looking like a saviour.”
“Love Has Left the Room” is one of those ’60s girl group numbers mentioned earlier, but given more gravitas with the strings of Joan Wasser and Jane Scarpantoni. Rather than a typical ’60s theme of complete devotion, this is a poignant look at a relationship that should end, but simply can’t. “I’ll let you go if you just let me,” Persson sings, and with a voice like that, it’s easy to understand why he can’t tear himself away. Nicolai Dunger duets with Persson on “Golden Teeth and Silver Medals,” a twisted, postmodern take on “My Favorite Things” if I’ve ever heard one. Nina and Nicolai become self-referential, even calling out each other’s names, as they discuss failing relationships and the joy of singing a duet about them. If Daron Aronofsky directed a Disney musical, this would be its opening number. “Here Are Many Wild Animals” delves even further into Spector-esque territory, complete with “ooo-eee-ooo’s,” yet pairing that style with a dark and brooding guitar style that belies the usual glee, mirroring the dark themes of the album delivered by such an innocent sounding voice.
“Chinatown” and “My America” deliver a nice one-two punch, both marinated in a bit of Bowie back catalog. “Chinatown” seems more inspired by the Duke’s Hunky Dory era, especially tracks like “Quicksand” and “Life on Mars,” whereas “My America,” even providing Bowie’s signature sax, captures more of Ziggy’s blue-eyed soul period. Somehow, though, the delivery of the title in the chorus is more reminiscent of a Bob Seger or John Mellencamp truck commercial than an ironic pastiche. The loveless theme continues with “I Signed the Line,” a track that brings us a great rhyme in “Don’t give me platinum to weigh down my wrist / I’ve got injunctions, so cease and desist.” Unfortunately, the album ends with two morose, yet impeccably orchestrated tunes. After a string of catchy numbers, Colonia just peters out. An argument can be made for this reflecting either the feelings of a colonized nation or the downfall of man, or some such existential theme, but in the end, this is a pop album, and most won’t make these connections.
Colonia is an album that is immaculately crafted. The aforementioned strings, the guitars of James Iha (among several other notable guests), as well as the amazing core of Persson’s husband and ex-Shudder to Think member, Nathan Larsson, and fellow Swede, Niclas Frisk, all combine together to make an album so clean and polished you could eat grapes off of it like a conquering emperor. Several songs could easily go down as some of the best Persson has written, and her voice is still as entrancing as ever. But for every assailing nation, there’s an enslaved people, and, as deftly as Persson writes lyrics that blur the lines between romantic love, nature, and imperial power, juggled balls eventually have to drop, and they eventually do in the last fleeting moments of Colonia. Maybe had they been placed elsewhere in the tracklisting there would have been a better balance, but as it is, this album is like a northern hemispheric bias, top heavy.
David Bowie- Let’s Dance
Dusty Springfield- A Girl Called Dusty
Adam & the Ants- When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going