Some songs don’t make sense as fan favourites only. They feel like they should belong to, be known and loved by, the widest possible audience. Probably every music fan has a list of songs like that.*
It’s one thing when such a song is by a band of indie heroes whose music is scruffy and raw, and would need to be significantly polished up to become acceptable to the mainstream. There’s a reason why Turn On the News is known only to Husker Du fans and Unsatisfied only to Replacements fans, but even my dad would recognise Runaway Train by fellow Minneapolis band Soul Asylum were Ken Bruce to play it tomorrow. There’s a reason why Rod Stewart’s readings of I Don’t Want to Talk About It and Downtown Train were hits but the Crazy Horse and Tom Waits originals weren’t.
But I can’t really understand how Communication by the Cardigans wasn’t a huge hit.
Communication – from 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight – is special. It wasn’t the typical indie-with-strings ballady thing you got from a lot of that era’s bands, and neither was it particularly rootsy. The drum sound, for example, was clearly 2003 (clipped and somewhat like samples), not warm and uncompressed like 1973.
Nevertheless, the song is beautifully arranged, with the band members mostly cast in supporting textural roles. The partial exception is guitarist and principle songwriter Peter Svensson, whose prominent riff features in the intro, after the first chorus and in the outro, and who gets to play a rather nice harmonised solo**. Other than that, the most notable performance by a band member is Bengt Lagerberg’s drumming, which has nice kick drum work (the influence of John Bonham’s Kashmir beat is evident in those semi-quavers), but isn’t in the least bit bombastic. Lagerberg could have turned this song into a power ballad but wisely chose not to, playing with (I think) Hot Rods for a smaller sound.
The band provide the frame for Patrik Bartosch’s string arrangement, which nicely supports the mood and atmosphere of the song, and Nina Persson’s vocal. A song like Communication succeeds or fails on its vocal. Her voice pushed to the very front of the mix and left relatively dry and exposed, Persson sings Communication like it’s the most important thing she’s ever had to say, and her performance is moving and feels very true. It’s what gets her over a couple of slightly awkward lines; however occluded the meaning may sometimes be to us, Persson’s delivery insists that her words are meaningful to her, which is more than enough.
Finally, Persson and the band plays their two arrangemental aces together: the triplet downbeats of “I’m talking and talking” in the final chorus and that magical moment when Persson sings “And I hold a record for being patient” while drummer Lagerberg plays the song’s most live-sounding fill. Just for a second, the song seems suspended in mid-air until the rest of the band comes back in. It’s a big moment, perhaps a little too big for a song that no one really heard when it came out, but it’s completely glorious.
Songs have long lives these days, and can return to the charts or enter them for the first time decades after release, were they suddenly to find a mass audience. Maybe an enterprising music supervisor will use Communication to score a particularly emotional scene in a TV show or film and the song will find the wider audience it’s not had up to now. Until then it remains, I suspect, treasured by the band’s deep fans.
*I’ll give you some of mine: Jellyfish’s The King is Half-Undressed, Big Star’s The Ballad of El Goodo, Sparklehorse’s Some Day I Will Treat You Good, No Need to Worry by the Folk Implosion
**Svensson has a profitable sideline these days as a writer, guitarist and producer for hire. Look for him among the credits on records by The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Ellie Goulding.
Here’s the EP I released with Melanie Crew in July 2020, Away from the City: