My favorite type of art is naïve art, which is a style of painting that looks like a 5-year old child did it with his chubby, untrained fingers – great big blocks of color and form jostled together in a way that, while rough, carries an immediate emotional impact. I like the hand-made-ness of the style, even if it at times it can come off as a little self-conscious or knowing.
I presage my review of Lush Cardamom Coffee with this by way of explaining why I continue to blind buy Lush perfumes, even though 70% of them don’t work out for me. I’m just hopelessly attracted to the aesthetic of all those naturals smooshed together like squirts of red and blue gouache, and to the air of childlike glee that lurks at the corners of all Lush products.
Unfortunately, this sort of naïve style, while attractive, has downsides when it comes to perfume. Lush perfumes are filled to the brim with expensive naturals, but the result is often just too much of everything – too strong, unrefined, too massively clumsy, like a garishly painted elephant careening around a china shop: a Duplo compared to the Lego of a niche or a designer perfume. Still, I love the lack of pretension in the style, and its cheerful, colorful sense of fun, which I why I continue to buy them.
Cardamom Coffee sounds like an excellent proposition on paper. The first question anyone will have is: does it smell like coffee? The answer is that, yes, it does. But your second and more important question should be: what kind of coffee? Because Cardamom Coffee smells like the bitter mass of coffee grounds left in the machine when the barista turns it up too high and burns the hell out of it. Want to smell like that? Yeah, me neither.
How you like your coffee to smell will very much define your relationship with any of the coffee-based fragrances around. Some smell milky, some smell like caramel and hazelnut creamer has been added, some smell resinous or green, some smell like the wooden insides of the coffee shop rather than the coffee itself, and some, including Cardamom Coffee smell burned (they might call it roasted) to the point of bitterness. This last one is the one that nauseates me.
That’s not to say that there are no pleasant aspects to the fragrance, because there are, and I enjoy those parts very much. The cardamom note is excellent here, turning from a lemony, peppery freshness to a metallic greenness and finally to a gently soapiness, all aspects exerting a steadying hand on the bitter roar of burnt coffee grounds.
There are points at which I can even smell what Lush must have been aiming for, which is the exotic scent of drinking Turkish coffee through a pod of green cardamom held between your teeth, as many Arabs and Persians do. When I lived in a North-Eastern town in Bosnia, I was always charmed to see how Muslim women drank their coffee – some with a cracked cardamom pod, some with a sugar cube, some even with an orange peel, held gently between their upper and lower teeth while they sipped the coffee, aromatizing it.
Still, the burned coffee ground aspect in Coffee Cardamom is so potent that it tends to overwhelm the more pleasant notes. Packed densely into this compressed brick of aroma, there are nuances of dirty rubber, fuel, and singed electrical wires. As the fragrance develops (or rather, begins to fade out, since I can’t say that there is much development here), it begins to smell like the dry honk of air sucked in by burning tires. It retains that faintly foodie edge of coffee grounds, however, so the stomach continues to churn a little.
It gets better. Always, by the time the base comes around, I feel as if I could forgive Coffee Cardamom its bitter start. It eases out into a dusty, balsamic chocolate accord enlivened with juicy Coca Cola note, which is probably the cardamom, its characteristic sparkle nudging its way out of the dense darkness of the burned chocolate-coffee mass.
Hints of another Lush perfume, All Good Things, emerge in the drydown, with its charming mix of crystallized sugar, charred woods, toasted newspaper, and something dirty, like a B.O note. Finally, in its last grasp, it becomes a sparkling vanilla scent, with a touch of Barbie doll maltol to see things out on a friendly note. How weird, and how unbalanced, though, this nose-dive from bitter, burned coffee grounds to Pink Sugar. No, Coffee Cardamom doesn’t work for me, but I can’t say that I’ll learn my lesson and stop buying Lush perfumes. The strike rate is low, but the 30% that do work for me really work for me, if you know what I mean.