1) Mamma Mia; 2) Hey, Hey Helen; 3) Tropical Loveland; 4) SOS; 5) Man In The Middle; 6) Bang-A-Boomerang; 7) I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do; 8) Rock Me; 9) Intermezzo No.1; 10) I’ve Been Waiting For You; 11) So Long
9 out of 10
And suddenly, perhaps unexpectedly, ABBA fully arrives at the sound that would make them international stars and one of the most interesting and consistent pop bands in the world. Bjorn and Benny’s songwriting finally reaches the “ten hooks a second” level that they are best known for while the girls finally become the real singers and centerpieces of each song.
Usually. Of course, there’s still those Bjorn lead songs that can kind of turn people off of listening to ABBA albums instead of a greatest hits collection. Bjorn gets at least one vocal per album and although his vocal pieces are drastically down, there are still two here: “Rock Me” and “Man in the Middle.” Many people completely dismiss these songs as fluff and poorly sung filler.
Fluff is a relative statement: if one wanted, you could argue that everything ABBA wrote was fluff. Yeah, Bjorn is simply nowhere near the singer of the two girls, even if he is rather pleasant if boring on the ears. His attempts to growl out “rock me!” are a little silly but more tolerable than “King Kong Song.” Here, the band enters into a rather genial musical hall groove that, while being a bit generic, is still catchy.
“Man in the Middle” shows ABBA trying out funk (guys loved dancing right from the beginning) with rather genial clavinets. However, Bjorn simply cannot sing these “socially relevant” lyrics with the proper conviction. And really, why is ABBA trying to make us think? They’re the opposite of thinking man’s music: they’re for shaking your hips and laughing your ass off.
Or maybe not: any songwriter interested in writing high quality pop should listen to songs like “Mamma Mia.” Yes, the musical is corn ball and the song has lyrics too banal to sing along to: but the music and arrangement of the song is just incredible. How many hooks does the band add to the song? The first, slightly chromatic piano (and percussion) riff that opens the song: the slitherly electric guitar riff that rings out through the introduction: the catchy as malaria vocal melody: the short but memorable string riff that pops up between the vocal melody: the “why why, did I ever let you go?” section: the refrains to the already catchy musical parts. The song is an incredibly efficient piece of writing that, once it lands in your head, is impossible to ever get out.
The other big hit that comes from this album is “S.O.S.” which still stands as an amazing piece of music. The introduction has that moody, story telling piano riff crossed with the minor key synthesizer noodling. The verse melody is pleading and nearly convincing with some of Benny’s most beautiful piano work. The chorus kicks in with the instantly memorable and genius chorus melody, backed by simple but beautiful guitar parts (the part after “and when you’re near me darling can’t you hear me SOS” is beautiful simplicity epitomized).
However, the absolute best part of the song comes with the brilliant, brilliant key change in the second half of the chorus (“when you’re gone”) which combines with the synthesizer parts to create an utterly crushing atmosphere of depression (for a band as fluffy as ABBA is usually portrayed).
These were the big hits but the album is amazingly consistent, even considering the flight road bumps of Bjorn’s blurts. “Hey, Hey Helen” is one of ABBA’s best, if not the best, heavy guitar led songs the band ever wrote. The riffs are better written, memorable and even ominous. The melodies are simply unforgettable and the lyrics are really, really weird (kind of an anti-feminist screed, if you can believe it). The song is rather lumbering sounding its slowness but it somehow works.
“So Long” is another great piece of guitar led rock and roll. In fact, I believe this is ABBA’s best try at a guitar led song. The guitar tones are very weird: the introduction sound is completely unique to rock and roll and pop. Then, the band enters into a heavy guitar groove, lead by the heady, spinning voices of the girls. When they start wailing “so long! So long! SO LONG!” at the end of the song, you’re entering dork rock (as this is completely in that genre) heaven. “Bang A Boomerang” is very similar in that it is very fast, guitar dominated and completely nerdy (the chorus of “bang…a booma boomerrang” is soooo cheeseball that it’s absolutely genial). Great songs.
ABBA even takes their chance to go a bit proggy with the classical rock fusion “Intermezzo No. 1.” While some prog fans may have a laugh at this song (it’s not 20 minutes long after all) it’s such a fun and energetic instrumental that it’s a huge highlight of the album. ABBA doesn’t forget to put the “rock” into “prog rock” here. The band and Benny in particular (the piece was his baby and is keyboard dominated) show off their chops. Benny was a HELL of a keyboardist and this piece shows that off fully.
This album actually rarely slows down to show off the balladeering style that ABBA later became well known for mastering. However, “I’ve Been Waiting For You” helps develop the successes from the last album into a seemingly heart felt (but probably not) highly operatic, near Broadway ballad. Luckily, Benny and Bjorn had entered their “can’t do wrong” phase, so the song works in spite of the potential cheese. Of which there is still plenty.
The band also shows off something approaching a cabaret style with “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.” The saxophone led arrangement may be very cheesy and the melodies are pure cabaret. But what cabaret act could take two words (I do) and turn it into a complex and engaging chorus? Only ABBA. Not a highlight, perhaps, but a nice little diverse side car on the album.
Basically, the album is the culmination of the work the band was doing on the first two albums. Even though the album is incredibly diverse, each song is wrung through the boys genius melody and arrangement writing skills to make each song maximally effective. This isn’t the “what are we gonna do?” type of diversity from “Waterloo.” This is a band at the peak of their powers trying out different styles to prove that any type of music can be turned into hilariously catchy and incredibly stupid, incredibly fun pop music. The fact that ABBA only gets better after this album (for awhile) is simply astonishing to me.