Monday, March 5, 2012

Beginning Again: Ace of Base's "Da Capo" Turns 10

Euro-pop is a dirty word to the (supposedly) discerning music aficionado. Disposable, camp, and lacking any sort of message are usual suspects of its derision. These stereotypes are shortsighted and often incorrect. 

Euro-pop is a changing, uninhibited embrace of styles. Melodically fortified, lyrically abstract, joyful and smart, its shield and sword have been wielded by many. In the last two decades, Ace of Base was one of the best warriors of the form. Arriving on the global stage with the song "Wheel of Fortune" 20 years ago last month, Ace of Base became one of the biggest groups to bounce out of the pop capitol of the world, Sweden. The original quartet consisted of Ulf Ekberg and siblings Malin (Linn), Jenny, and Jonas (Joker) Berggren. Recall for a few may stop at their feel-good pop slice "The Sign." That's only one side of Ace of Base's story. Ten years back Ace of Base unleashed Da Capo, their fourth long player, and last to feature the initial line-up. Da Capo symbolized a new path and the end of an era, yet it remains eager to reveal its secrets.

The History
Happy Nation, later presented as The Sign, propelled Ace of Base from 1992 through 1994. One of the few albums to hold the record title of "best-selling debut," Happy Nation/The Sign's multi-platinum shadow cast long over Ace of Base's subsequent material. Standing as the flashpoint for the ongoing obsession of club culture and its music, Happy Nation/The Sign's blend of reggae-dub with harsh beats was the epitome of freshness at that junction. Their follow-up, 1995's The Bridge, removed the sophomore jinx creatively with a multitude of world music flavor. Sales were respectable, but not as astronomical as their debut. Unfettered, Ace of Base moved onward to their third set, the diverse and aptly titled Flowers (1998).

The world smash "Life is a Flower" allowed its parent album Flowers to repeat the sales success of The Bridge and kept Ace of Base in the public eye. Behind the curtain there was tension stirring within their many label homes. Distributed by Mega Records in Europe proper, Ace of Base also had representation by Polydor (England) and Arista Records (U.S.A.). The labels saw The Bridge's diminutive commercial presence as an issue and pressure mounted to "rework" Ace of Base's appeal. Self-contained, with occasional collaborative producer/songwriter partnerships, Ace of Base handled majority of their output. The record labels didn't see this as a good thing and Stateside Clive Davis (then Arista chief) usurped control. Despite its success, Davis viewed "Life is a Flower" and its album Flowers as "too European." Flowers appeared altered in the American market as Cruel Summer in 1998. Its title came from Bananarama's '83/'84 hit that Ace of Base covered for Flowers.

"Life is a Flower" was recast lyrically as "Whenever You're Near Me," musically the same, but its songwriting rendered a generic confection. Davis was partially rewarded: "Cruel Summer" gave Ace of Base their final U.S. Top 10 pop hit. Overall, the U.S. version of the album didn't meet the same commercial goals it did abroad in its original format.

Amid the label politics, the band itself faced internal strife. Malin Berggren's personal struggle with her agoraphobia was fast becoming an issue. Throughout it all, Ace of Base continued to be one of the loudest voices of European pop in the late '90's. Singles of the '90's globally, and The Greatest Hits in the American territory, dropped in 1999. Soon afterwards, work started in late October of 2000 on "Album V," what became Da Capo, Ace of Base's fourth long player. Sadly, label interference delayed the record until 2002.

The Record
"Da capo" is an Italian phrase that when translated means "from the beginning." For Ace of Base, they'd made it a point to distance themselves from the specific sound slope of Happy Nation/The Sign. Da Capo's mission was to connect back to the reggae-dub/euro-dance of yore without undoing the growth of their second and third albums.

The seeds of Da Capo were first planted back during the creation of The Bridge. Before the gleaming "Goldeneye" from Tina Turner's Wildest Dreams LP (1995), Ace of Base were on board to record the theme for the Pierce Bronsnan led James Bond flick of the same name. Jonas Berggren had written the dark song "The Goldeneye" for the film, a pinnacle for him.

For reasons still unknown, Ace of Base's U.S. label Arista that initiated the idea for Ace of Base to join an elite group that included a-ha, Duran Duran, Gladys Knight, Shirley Bassey, and later Garbage and Madonna, pulled Ace of Base from the project. Placed on the shelf, "The Goldeneye" was touched up as "The Juvenile." The stormy ballad didn't feel out of time, or place, on the remainder of Da CapoMalin, Ulf, and Jenny joined Jonas (in a songwriting capacity) with fellow producers/songwriters Jonas Von Der Burg and Nice Sommerdahl (to name some) to craft their fourth vehicle. Instead of just aping the previously stated debut vibe, Ace of Base focused on pulling out and applying the "beat buoyancy" that gave that record edge.

"Unspeakable," "Beautiful Morning," and "Change With the Light" were bright grooves that echoed Ace of Base's initial inertia, but with the grace and polish that personified their post debut material. The beats rolled with tricks, tweaks, and twists. "Beautiful Morning" in particular benefited from a gospel choir charge, and Ulf's trademark rap breakdown popped on "Change With the Light." "Da Capo" zinged full of energy, Ulf and Jenny's harmonies piloted into the instant hook of the title track's chorus. It, along with sonic sunbeams "Hey Darling" and "Show Me Love," made no bones about their optimistic airs, countering some of the darker sides of Da Capo.

Ambition remained Ace of Base's best drive for exceptional work, see "Remember the Words" as an example. "Remember the Words" wore an "Old World glamour" that sprawled convincinglyThe percussive clatter of "What's the Name of the Game" and the lyrical duality of "World Down Under" were aural field trips to foreign shores only dreamed of. "Ordinary Day," its A.M. The Album (1977)-era ABBA romanticism soothed like an afternoon chamomile. Ace of Base's desire to rekindle old flames, but burn with modernity had been realized on Da Capo's lean palette.

The Impact
Label wise, Da Capo had been caught in a maelstrom of changes. In addition to the hold-up by Mega Records, said company had merged with Edel Records. The union wouldn't prove fruitful. Regardless, when the moratorium had been lifted from Da Capo, the album was preceded by its lead single "Beautiful Morning" in August of 2002. The single made modest rounds in Sweden (#14), Denmark (#18), Switzerland (#32), Germany (#38), and Australia (#47).

On September 30th, 2002 Da Capo received its partial worldwide release, backed by a muted promotional campaign from Mega/Edel Records. The album placed in various countries: Sweden (#25), Japan (#40), Japanese International Artist Album Chart (#10), and Germany (#48) notably. Da Capo only locked in 500,000 copies worldwide as of this writing. There were several parameters to the commercial failure of Da Capo. The climate had changed considerably between Flowers and Da Capo and while European pop wasn't lacking in popularity, undoubtedly general audiences were moving on to "fresher" sounds. However, weak promotion played a large role. Specifically, during the recording of Da Capo, Ace of Base lost their U.S. contract with Arista unexpectedly. Polydor chose to only give it a "soft release" in Britain with no muscle placed behind advancing the album.

Two more singles were lifted from Da Capo internationally: "Unspeakable" and "The Juvenile." The former touched on charts in Sweden (#45) and Germany (#97), while the latter was a German release only (#97). Critically, Da Capo was received warmly. All Music Guide writer Jon O'Brien didn't hear the modern flourishes abounding on Da Capo, but opined:

Named after the musical term for "back to the beginning," Swedish pop outfit Ace of Base's fourth studio album, Da Capo, stays faithful to its title, thanks to a sound that harks back to the lilting Euro reggae-pop of their mid-'90s heyday.

This old-school approach may explain why the follow-up to 1998's more eclectic Flowers was only given a soft release in the U.K. and failed to see the light of day at all in the U.S.A. (both previously two of their biggest territories), with record company executives, who were already responsible for its two-year delay, claiming the band's output was no longer relevant. But while most of its 12 tracks are unashamedly stuck in the previous decade, particularly the bouncy lead single "Unspeakable," their ska-pop cover of Black's "Wonderful Life," and the flamenco-tinged "Show Me Love," their Anglo-American fans are missing out on some of the best work of their career.

"Beautiful Morning" is a Max Martin-esque polished pop anthem, complete with rousing gospel finale, dedicated to the three Berggren siblings' late father; the title track is a pulsing fusion of techno beats, chugging guitars, and twinkling synths; and, best of all, "The Juvenile" is a reworking of their intended James Bond theme for 1995's Goldeneye, whose sinister John Barry-esque strings and haunting melodies are more than a match for the Tina Turner number that was chosen ahead of it. Da Capo was to be the final swan song for original vocalists Linn and Jenny, but while it undeniably sounds like it's stuck in a mid-'90s time warp, it's a consistently feel-good affair ensuring that the pair went out on a high

Shell-shocked by the cold reception of Da Capo, Ace of Base went on hiatus. During the span between Da Capo and their next album The Golden Ratio (2010), Malin Berggren removed herself from the group permanently. Down to a trio, Ulf, and siblings Jenny and Jonas slowly began working on their fifth record, while keeping a high profile within Europe's confines.

An exceptional performance at the ever-popular Night of the Proms in 2005 showed promise for the trio. Yet, record labels scarcely had interest in signing the group without a fourth member. Jenny Berggren split from Ulf and her brother to release her first solo recording My Story in 2010. The work started with Jenny continued with Ulf and Jonas and two new female singers: Julia Williamson and Swedish Idol 2009 semi-finalist Clara Hagman. Ace of Base, now rechristened ace.of.base, found a new home for Ratio on Playground/UniversalThe Golden Ratio received mixed reviews and sales. There remains no word if Ulf and Jonas will eventually attempt a reunion with Jenny and Malin.

Directed By: Daniel Borjesson

Victims of label scrutiny and a debut almost too big to top commercially, Ace of Base managed to pull together and stay true to their vision. Their impact is still muddled in slight critical misrepresentation and that's unfortunate. Their music, despite recent line-up debacles, rings true as fine Euro-pop. Adhering to the mentioned principals earlier in the entry, Da Capo's distillation of Ace of Base's pop purity remains distinct, unaffected, and contagious. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: For current information on Ace of Base, visit their official page here. Da Capo, along with all of Ace of Base's work is still in print, however certain albums (i.e.-Da Capo, Flowers, etc.) are physically only available as imports. Digitally, the albums are all domestically available via iTunes, or Amazon offers the physical ones at decent prices. Thanks to Ultimate Ace of Base for the data used in this entry.-QH]


Jeremy Joseph said...

Gr8 retrospective, Q. Isn't it ridiculous that artists' decision to stay true to their vision can be so costly? Especially when that decision leads to brilliant output that goes unnoticed.

Diva Incarnate said...

I admire the enthusiasm for the album, but the album was not quite up to the scale of previous triumphs. Da Capo, Hey Darling and Unspeakable are all great. In particular I'd have chosen Unspeakable to launch the album: the video is also one of their very best. Beautiful Morning just was NOT a lead single. Of course, they were facing difficulties with a certain someone not up to promotional duties, so the label may have been uninterested to open as many doors for them this time. The sound didn't re-invent or unite their signiture motifs to current trends the way Flowers did so impeccable.

Anonymous said...

Jenny will always live in her sister's shadow as she has always been the less talented of the two. Jenny should just go back to sucking her Z-Lister husband's dick or better yet, guest star in an episode of South Park with the Battletoads guest starring as well and go fight and get her leathery ass kicked by the totally disgusting Robo-Manus mutant because Jenny would just stand there getting shot like an idiot whereas Malin knows how to crouch to avoid getting plastered!

PS - Oh by the way, Jenny's album was number 48 on the Swedish album charts. Can you say DUD?