Wheel of Fortune: Soundtracking Ace of Base

L to R: Jonas, Ulf, Malin, Jenny.

L to R: Jonas, Ulf, Malin, Jenny.

In the midst of the ABBA revival and Roxette’s diminishing grip on American radio, another Swedish outfit moved to the frontline. Ace of Base―composed of Ulf Ekberg and the Berggren siblings (Jonas, Malin and Jenny)―crept from the European dance underground with their debut Happy Nation (1992).

With its sensuous youthful appeal Happy Nation was something of a sensation. Distribution and representation for this quartet was initially owed to Mega Records, a smaller Danish label. As the record picked up traction across Europe and England, Ace of Base caught the eye of shrewd Svengali Clive Davis.

"The Sign" single cover.

“The Sign” single cover

Seeing Ace of Base as a modern ABBA―later a point of contention for Ace of Base―Davis secured them a deal with Arista Records. Slightly retooled for the American market, but retaining its European appeal, Happy Nation appeared 20 years ago Stateside as The Sign (1994).

Their soundscape was comprised of reggae-dub, electronic and dance based pop music; sisters Jenny and Malin’s harmonies on top of this sonic print defined a decade: “The Sign,” “All That She Wants,” “Don’t Turn Around” and “Living in Danger”. At their start, the quartet was darker than ABBA (pre-Voulez-Vous, 1979) and clubbier than the pop-rock of Roxette; Ace of Base were the third in line to inherit the Swede pop crown.

Twenty years removed from the dizzying success of The Sign, many don’t recall Ace of Base outside of a ’90’s nostalgia context. Current pop singers Lady Gaga and Katy Perry cite them as “influences” but their knowledge of Ace of Base’s broader discography doesn’t extend past the singles from The Sign.

Ace of Base has struggled to shake off the Euro-pop stigma. Thankfully, Ace of Base’s four additional records allowed them to restructure their sound and that of their Swedish pop lineage.

"Beautiful Life" single cover

“Beautiful Life” single cover

Take The Bridge (1995)―one of the sharpest sophomore follow-ups in pop―it staged the entire group’s democratic position as creators in their sound. Additionally, The Bridge featured contributions from Max Martin and Denniz PoP. Both men went on to streamline their native pop DNA for American pop consumption at the tail end of the 1990’s.

A blend of holistic lyrics and world music textures, Ace of Base graduated from dancefloors to globe-trotting with The Bridge. Remembered for its charter “Beautiful Life,” there were deeper selections such as “Strange Ways,” “Ravine,” “Que Sera” and “Blooming 18” that had them at the height of their abilities.

Their junior record was bolder; Flowers (1998) was a step further into pop and farther away from dance music. Motown, J-Pop, hip-hop and other influences were thoughtfully structured throughout the long player. Ace of Base was rewarded with one of their biggest pop hits in “Life is a Flower”.

"Cruel Summer" single cover

“Cruel Summer” single cover

Clive Davis did not view “Life is a Flower” as a viable U.S. marketplace hit however. Supposedly,  American audiences would not “understand” certain song themes. “Cecilia”―which bore the same name and character as detailed in the 1970 Simon & Garfunkel hit―and the Jules Verne inspired “Captain Nemo” might have been too artful for Stateside listeners. Davis had Ace of Base redesign Flowers into Cruel Summer (1998); they scored their final U.S. Top 10 single with a cover of the U.K. girl group Bananarama’s 1983 jig of the same name.

In spite of Davis’ meddling, and Malin Bergrren’s growing agoraphobia, the Flowers / Cruel Summer period was diverse as mentioned. In fact, if one were to compile songs from both the European and American versions, one would have a fantastic Ace of Base album.

The QH Blend’s Flowers / Cruel Summer Tracklisting*

  1. “Life is a Flower”
  2. “Always Have, Always Will”
  3. “Cruel Summer”
  4. “Travel to Romantis” (Flowers version)
  5. “Adventures in Paradise”
  6. “Dr. Sun”
  7. “Cecilia”
  8. “He Decides” (Cruel Summer version)
  9. “I Pray”
  10. “Don’t Go Away”
  11. “Everytime it Rains” (Cruel Summer version)
  12. “Donnie” (Cruel Summer version)
  13. “Captain Nemo”
  14. “Into the Night of Blue”
  15. “Cruel Summer” (Big Bonus Mix)

The returns for this period were fair, if not the astronomical figures of their first and second recordings. Ace of Base persevered and began recording their fourth LP. In the interim, at the insistence of their various labels, Ace of Base issued their first hits package, Singles of the 90’s in 1999. The slightly inferior U.S. counterpart followed entitled Greatest Hits (2000). Between the collections, three new Ace of Base songs emerged emitting the pop radiance of the Flowers / Cruel Summer epoch: “C’est La Vie (Always 21),” “Hallo, Hallo” and “Love in December”.

"Beautiful Morning" single cover

“Beautiful Morning” single cover

Da Capo debuted in 2002 to indifference despite it being Ace of Base’s most realized project. Buoyed by two fine singles (“Beautiful Morning,” “Unspeakable”) and a plethora of strong album fare, Da Capo (an Italian phrase for “from the beginning”) allowed the group to return to their roots without losing their growth.

The LP was the last record to feature the original quartet as Malin quietly retired from public life. Label wrangling and the birthing pains of their fifth record filled the remainder of 2000’s. Jenny would take on high-end session work and record her own solo album. Even with her side gigs, Jenny continued to work alongside Ulf and her brother Jonas on their fifth record.

When an impasse was reached, Jenny decided to depart and recording for The Golden Ratio (2010) commenced with Julia Williamson and Clara Hagman. Hagman was already working on the Swedish entertainment circuit (‘Melodifestivalen’ 2002, ‘Swedish Idol’ 2009) when Jonas and Ulf recruited her.

The Golden Ratio played worn, if interesting in spots (“Southern California,” “Juliet”). The record did not make waves or illicit too many positive responses from longtime Ace of Base fans. As of 2014, the remaining members Ulf and Jonas have celebrated their breakthrough with The Sign―via social media―and reunion questions are once again swirling.

Ace of Base Through the Years

While one is not certain what the future holds for Ace of Base, it has become clear that their brand of engaging pop is in need of appreciation. That a discography as lyrically and musically rich as ABBA’s remains shoved in the closet of the 1990’s is  a crime. Ace of Base may need to reform and remind people of an act that soundtracked a generation like none other.

[Editor’s Note: The entire Ace of Base discography is in print digitally and physically; some recordings may be imports only. *―See the respective tracklistings for Flowers and Cruel Summer to find out which songs were omitted from my playlist. For current information on Ace of Base, visit their official Twitter page.-QH]

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