It’s easy to be cynical when a band from our youth comes out of retirement, but in the same way that the Christmas trees appearing in people’s windows in November demonstrate, we need something to cheer us up at times and the return of Sweden’s 1990s indie darlings The Cardigans certainly provide a nostalgic feel-good factor for the surprisingly underwhelming audience in Manchester tonight. More of that later though; the show is a celebration of sorts; it’s been twenty years since the release of iconic album Gran Turismo and the band present it in full this evening. Although the record does include some of their most recognisable songs, it is actually a pretty dark affair and the songs are far from celebratory in tone. The perceived blitheness of the band is perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding them; the blue skies and pastel colours of their first two albums swiftly became more caliginous on Gran Turismo and that becomes apparent in its presentation this evening. Nina Persson has always been the focal point of the band and she reinforces the inherent darkness that exists on record when she arrives on stage cloaked in black, with a gas mask attachment masquerading as a hair accessory as the funereal opener ‘Paralyzed’ begins to take shape.
The metric rhythms of ‘Erase-Rewind’ make it easier to sing along too but there is still a lurking sense of tenebrosity that doesn’t let up tonight and after the creeping dysphoria of ‘Explode’ and ‘Starter’ comes the enigmatic ‘Hanging Around’. The song’s fuzzy guitar acts like a scratch you just can’t itch and the song builds until guitarist Oskar Ludvig Humlebo AKA Moto Boy, who is standing in for the absent Peter Svensson, unleashes a devastating solo that mirrors the unease of the track.
The seats are empty in the O2 Apollo tonight, which is odd for a band that have sold over fifteen million albums. The demographics of the crowd are clearly one-dimensional though; we’re all nineties kids grown up and the band’s pre-millennial angst doesn’t seem to have transferred to a more contemporary audience. Those that are reliving their 1990s youth cheer enthusiastically when the unmistakeable riff triggers the launch of the band’s biggest single, ‘My Favourite Game’. From this point, the Gran Turismo portion of the evening begins to wind down and Nina Persson disappears during the sombre instrumental ‘Nil’ emerging moments later in a plush green suit. We’re informed that we’re going to get a smorgasbord of hits from their other records, but it is perhaps significant that this doesn’t include any from the band’s first two sunnier, poppier records. Instead, the focus is initially on the more textured Long Gone Before Daylight which marked a return for the band in 2004 after a five year hiatus. Although themes are still dark and occasionally lurid during this section of the evening, there is a more consistently melodic and engaging inflection to proceedings. ‘Live and Learn’ is a highlight off the record and it proves to be the case this evening, providing Persson with the opportunity to showcase her iconic moves and poses. In fact, this section of the show appears to energise the Swede and her Bergman-esque poise and gutsy vocals are utterly beguiling. ‘For What it’s Worth’ is a song that Nicky Wire once described as “one of the greatest records ever made, it’s just fucking outrageously perfect.” and the slick groove and soaring vocals is complimented by Nina’s harmonica, which adds a warmer texture to the darker tones. Nina ends this section with one of the best-titled rock songs ever; ‘I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need to be Nicer’ comes from the band’s final album in 2006 and is a savage tale chronicling the deterioration of booze-sodden relationship. It’s uptempo and utterly thrilling but as the band disappear there is still a gap in the tale still to be recounted.
After the heartbreaking ‘Communication’ we’re treated to their most famous song. ‘Lovefool’ may possess a jolly pitch but don’t forget that the song found fame in Baz Luhrman’s vivid and violent version of Romeo and Juliet, and we all know how it turned out for them… We may all be singing along but the jaunty melody disguises darker themes that this iconic band, who now seem to reside in a parallel universe when Y2K was the only thing we feared, excelled at.