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Thank you for the music
My one-sentence summation on ABBA is that if you curated a list of the ten best songs of the 1970s, a list comprising only of ABBA songs would probably be more accurate than a list that excludes them. I think it through, type it out, stare it down, mull it over, and ultimately, am comfortable with my truth out there for everyone to see and debate as they wish.
That said, I also think that saying that does ABBA a continued disservice. For the longest time, it felt like so many people in my generation that spend too much time on the Internet held a general distrust towards them specifically because our parents liked them. I say ‘general distrust’ because everyone could get behind the hits, and I say ‘continued disservice’ because by praising their individual songs, it may feel like I’m ignoring their albums as a lot of people do. ‘Singles band,’ you know the drill.
Except, I don’t know the drill at all. In music discussion, so many terms have been overused and misused, and in the line-up to the firing squad that contains supposedly icky terms like ‘pretentious’ and ‘filler,’ I think ‘singles band’ should be first to go. Generally speaking, I don’t know how you can call a band a ‘singles band’ if they have deep cuts that were never released as singles, or if the majority of their albums are great. Both were the case with ABBA: my favourite ABBA song was not released as a single, and their album run from 1974-onwards is something to behold. Unlike their contemporaries, ABBA were practically a pure pop group, completely divorced from blues and soul, and on the occasion that they did rock out—“King Kong Song,” “Watch Out,” “Rock Me,” “Hole In Your Soul”—they did so to embarrassing results, and that might be part of the reason why you have people saying ‘singles band’: there’s the occasional filler you have to go through? Not that big a deal!
By starting their run at 1974, I get to skirt past Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’s Lycka and Ring Ring (originally credited to Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid before they changed their name to the simpler palindrome, ABBA), neither of which are much good except to curious music historians. The former is the ABBA men trying to portray themselves as a Swedish Simon & Garfunkel, while the latter lacks the sophistication of their future work. The title track, “Ring Ring,” is catchy enough to have scored them third place in the Swedish Eurovision selection competition on February 10, 1973, but it lacks shine. The album’s sleeper songs are actually the next two on the album, with “Another Town, Another Train” looking ahead to one of ABBA’s strengths, which is making a deeply relatable and sad song without ever dwelling too much on how sad the lyrics actually are: “Guess I’ll live my life in railway stations,” they sing, as if it’s something to look forward to. Meanwhile, “Disillusion”—the only song on an ABBA studio album to be written by the Agnetha Fältskog (I need to say somewhere that the 23-second video of Agnetha teaching you how to pronounce her name brings me a lot of joy for no reason other than she seems wonderful)—has some of the best choruses, and there’s a guitar texture supporting her that sounds like it’s trying to lend a shoulder for her should she need it. (Speaking of textures, I like the keyboards on “I Saw It in the Mirror” but the song is way too limp.)
ABBA’s best album is contentious, and I mostly say that because I deliberate between two of them, but I know it isn’t either the first two albums officially as ABBA or their last two albums before their reunion album, Voyage, an album whose ceiling is ‘good’ and I probably won’t visit more than once every five years, if that. Waterloo contains their first great song in the title track but it’s also their most woefully uneven album. The men get too much space when we should be hearing more of Agnetha and Frida, which is why we get the aforementioned glam rock crusades of “King Kong Song” (ridiculous and infectious to the point that I can never not smirk a little laugh) and “Watch Out” (heavy damnation when a song makes me want to listen to the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane”). Björn Ulvaeus’ entrance on “Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)” after Agnetha’s intro only highlights how uninteresting he was singing lead. There’s also filler besides that: “What About Livingstone” is clompy, barely saved by the counterpointing vocal during the choruses. The best song is the obvious one, but the best deep cut is “My Mama Said,” the rare, early ABBA song with a funk feel thanks to the bass, yes, but also the blippy guitar during the choruses.
The average song quality on ABBA is higher, but it still isn’t consistent in quality or scope: the album is programmed again by placing its big hit first, followed by a rock song, and then a cute reggae pastiche that might be considered filler but serves as the perfect breather following “Hey, Hey Helen.” They bottom out again on “Rock Me” and I don’t think it wise to dwell too much on a song like that, so instead, I’ll pick on “Man in the Middle,” whose choruses take up too much space and don’t offer much in the way of tune, especially coming off “SOS”; I actively dislike the harmonizing of the bass with the words “You double cross.” (Unsurprisingly, Ulvaeus sings lead on both of these songs.) Again, the best song is the obvious one, but the best deep cut is “Hey, Hey Helen,” a missed opportunity to be released as a proper single as it does, in fact, rock with a great guitar riff and its lumbering drum beat. It’s a shame about the contemptuous lyrics against women finding (sexual) freedom: “And the price you paid / To become a woman of today […] Now you live on your own.” It’s the one ABBA song I love and deliberately don’t sing along to, except the “Hey, hey Helen” bits.
As for the last two albums they released in the early-1980s, I find both Super Trouper and The Visitors tired. The former has a mid-album stretch (“Andante, andante” --> “Me and I” --> “Happy New Year”) of very lovely but stately melodies; each song is good, but listening to them altogether is a hard pill to swallow, especially when these three songs make up a combined 14 minutes whereas the ABBA of just five years ago would’ve knocked them out in 10. If it weren’t for the title track (a very fun song with the ‘laggy’ backing vocals during the hook), I probably wouldn’t like this album half as much.
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The Visitors is even worse, and the public knew it too: it was their least successful album since ABBA six years ago. For one thing, part of what made ABBA great in the first place, the shimmering gold Swedish-style Phil Spector wall of sound, isn’t here, replaced by a coldness which is apt since the group’s two couples were now separated or divorced. (The obvious comparison might be Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, but that album was still lush and golden.) On Bright Lights Dark Shadows: The Real Story of ABBA, Carl Magnus Palm sums it up aptly: “It was certainly a barren LP, made even more so when, for the first time on an ABBA album, Frida and Agnetha didn’t sing in unison in the verses of any of the songs. It was Björn who insisted on this. […] The arrangements on many of the songs seemed more downscaled than was usual for Abba - it was as if they reverted to the aesthetics of the Ring Ring days…” “The Visitors” (good drawn-out build-up to the release, but it sounds generic afterwards) and “Head Over Heels” (I like the way the last line of the pre-choruses rushes into the chorus, “And with no trace of hesitation she keeps going…”) are the album’s two best songs, and yet they don’t hold a candle to the hits of any of their previous albums and here’s how I know: no one on the street will recognize either song. But ultimately, my read on The Visitors is even simpler than all that: a band like this puts out a song about a (incestuous) threesome fantasy, and I say fuck you, even if “Two For the Price of One” ends up somehow being among the album’s top five songs. The ‘twist’ at the end where it’s revealed the two women are mother-daughter isn’t funny and actually brings the song down a whole notch. Good joke, Björn! Ha-HA! Sex with related people at the same time!
I also know the accolade of ABBA's best album does not go to The Album, which starts with two of all-timers (both in the aforementioned top 10 ABBA songs), yes, and then keeps up the quality with the constantly-changing “One Man, One Woman” (adding vocal harmonies for the second verse and then strings for the third verse) and “The Name of the Game” (with its synthesized piccolo colour). But the album feels slight in a way that none of their other albums did: it’s sequenced in a way that shoves all the great songs up first (more frontloaded than The Joshua Tree), and then it has that abysmal “Hole in Your Soul” and then ends with three songs from the mini-musical The Girl With the Golden Hair, of which the closer “I'm A Marionette” feels like it’s missing an accompanying spectacle, and just like that, the album’s over.
I actually adore Voulez-Vous but sometimes it feels like I’m alone on that front. Yes, the album could have been vastly improved had it contained “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” in its original form—a lot of French people listened to that bridge and invented French house 15 years later—but the album more than makes up for it by containing “As Good As New” (funky!) “If It Wasn’t For the Night” (more funk!), “Chiquita” (cheers to Benny Andersson for that keyboard!), and, especially, the title track. Each syllable in “Voulez-Vous”’s hook is emphasized by the pound of the drum and lands in an "A-ha!" that feels like the most important "A-ha!" ever uttered, backed by that delicious horn hook. A-ha! A-ha! A-ha! I will take this mini-hook, this supernova, this pure sound with me for the rest of my life. (“I Have a Dream” and “Does Your Mother Know” look ahead to the more tired sound of the next two albums, alas.)
Which leaves Arrival, the exact mid-way point between the innocent and romantic ABBA and the mature, heartbroken and eventually cynical ABBA to come, characterized by the more serious lyrical content of songs like “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “My Love, My Life,” whose chorused “But I know I don’t possess you / So go away, God bless you” make it the spiritual successor to “Anna (Go With Him).” In contrast to the preceding Ring Ring, Waterloo and ABBA albums, Arrival decidedly doesn’t start with its big single, which is saved for second: “Dancing Queen” is one of the songs where it feels like no words does it justice, and so I’ll just say that I love that there’s no build-up; you’re already on the dance-floor when the spotlight hits you unexpectedly and the words go “You can dance,” and there’s a double realization each and every time you play the song, that (1) the song is actually about you, and (2) you can dance, and you should! To this very song! But my favourite song—and my favourite ABBA song in general and the reason why people who say they’re a singles band are stupid because it wasn't released as one—is “When I Kissed the Teacher,” because no song has ever replicated that insane sugar-rush when you kiss someone unexpectedly in front of people and the kiss is received well. “She was trying to explain the laws of geometry / And I couldn't help it / I just had to kiss the teacher” is one of my favourite lyrics of all-time. If you ever sat across from someone and they said something that they were deeply passionate about and you had no personal interest in but you couldn't help but get sucked into their words and wanted to kiss them, then you know the feeling.
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