She leads a lonely life. Mmm.
If you really want to feel old, why not spend a moment contemplating the fact that Ace of Base‘s debut Happy Nation is twenty-five years old this week? Well, actually it isn’t – the reissued and misleadingly titled US Version is, though, which seems a good excuse to relive those happy summery days of underproduced Swedish reggae-pop.
It opens with the UK and Europe-wide number 1` All That She Wants, which might be the only thing you remember from here now. Honestly, it is a great song, pulled together with the kind of simplicity that characterised the plinky plonk pop of the early 1980s. Even in 1993, this sounded outdated, and now, a quarter of a century later, the production is frankly pretty lacklustre, but the vocals are good (apart from that pained “mmm” sound that she makes in the middle of the first line) and it’s a strong song. It’s interesting to wonder how this might perform on the charts now.
Don’t Turn Around dials the reggae up to 11, and unsurprisingly so, as they’re heavily channelling Aswad‘s 1988 version and adding relatively little in the process. It’s not bad, though, and there’s still something uplifting about the “I will survive, I’ll make it through, go on and go,” message.
Young and Proud wasn’t one of the album’s seven singles, and probably rightly so, but it’s a pretty good album track. It’s also nice to see that they can do something other than reggae, as that was starting to wear a little thin after the first two tracks.
Next is The Sign, and if the four reggae-free minutes that preceded it were leading to withdrawal symptoms, never fear – this follow-up to All That She Wants, a UK number 2, but actually a bigger hit in some parts of the world, brings it back with a vengeance. Billboard observed that this was one of the key tracks to propel Swedish pop into the popular imagination for the decades to follow, and I’m inclined to agree, as Abba had left a bit of a vacuum throughout the 1980s in that regard. Then Living in Danger was the final single from this album, but still comfortably scraped into the top twenty in most countries. This is reggae too, in case you were wondering.
Confusingly, this wasn’t actually the US version of the album – The Sign was released the following year and in a triumph of editorial controls, dropped two of the total drivel tracks, Here Me Calling and Fashion Party. For some reason it left this next track on, Voulez-Vous Danser, perhaps because it isn’t quite as bad as the others, or perhaps because of the slight nod to Ace of Base‘s compatriots Abba. With those omissions, this was the USA’s biggest selling album of the year. Voulez-Vous Danser is disco, by the way, because it’s easier to dance to than reggae.
Happy Nation takes things in a more techno, and consequently rather better, direction. The UK was pretty burnt out with Ace of Base by the time we got it as a single, and so it stalled at number 40, but it topped the charts in some countries. Then Hear Me Calling comes next, a thoroughly misguided attempt to do some kind of electronic dance music which changes key unpredictably and just ends up sounding a bit of a mess. You’ll probably find yourself tapping your foot, and you’ll be a little embarrassed about it.
If you’re counting the genres here, Waiting for Magic is disco. It’s also complete rubbish. Surprisingly, Scandinavia and Finland decided to release it as a single, and it was a decent sized hit. Maybe there was just too much reggae in those territories at that point. You could probably guess from the title that Fashion Party is going to be pretty awful too, so no disappointments here. They keep saying something about having a good time, but frankly by this point, I’m really not.
Fortunately, debut single Wheel of Fortune is strategically placed at this point to re-inject some quality. A moderate hit in most countries when it was released as a single, it’s actually up there among the better tracks on here. It’s reggae again, but I suppose if we’ve learnt nothing else, we’ve learnt that Swedish reggae sells.
The last proper track on here is Dancer in a Daydream, which isn’t too bad. If it had been the actual album closer, it might have worked pretty well – it hinges on dance at times (it’s definitely not reggae, anyway), but it’s fairly laid back for the most part. But it’s hard to resist the urge to throw random remixes on the end of an album, and so we get three, starting with the appallingly bad My Mind (Mindless Mix). That’s followed by the awful and chronically misspelt All That She Wants (Banghra Version) and the pointless Happy Nation (Remix), and then the album is finally over.
Happy Nation (US Version) is a mixed bag, really – it’s definitely better than the non-US version, and frankly it’s also better than most of what followed. But there are some good things on here, and viewed as the album that set the blueprint for Swedish pop, it’s certainly important.
At the time of writing, you can purchase a second-hand copy of Happy Nation (US Version) for just nine pence. Which is definitely a bargain, however much you like reggae.