ABBA “The Album” Review
1) Eagle; 2) Take A Chance On Me; 3) One Man, One Woman; 4) The Name Of The Game; 5) Move On; 6) Hole In Your Soul; 7) Thank You For The Music; 8) I Wonder (Departure); 9) I’m A Marionette.
10+ out of 10
By 1977, ABBA was perhaps the biggest band in the world. Their list of top 10 hits was already endless and the band had undertaken several world conquering tours. After creating a perfect and a near perfect album, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the band had taken a little break or if the quality of their records suffered a little. After all, who has time to write, arrange and produce continually top of the line records in between television performances, concert tours and movie making?
Apparently, ABBA had time: the boys and gals marshal their forces and create another essentially perfect album. “The Album” is the culmination of all the work they’d done at this point and is the high point in their catalog. It’s such a beautiful, fully realized album that the band’s later immersion into a more synthesized and even disco based sound could only be a let down.
But where could the band go after this? It’s not like the band could really repeat the success by topping themselves. They push their fusion of classical, folk, rock, pop and funk style as far as humanely possible by fusing it with another genre they’d only lightly flirted with in the past: progressive art rock.
This isn’t to say that ABBA suddenly starts writing 20 minute progressive suites dedicated to armadillo tanks. Sad to say, ABBA’s lyrics are actually better than Greg Lake’s in that they actually do make some kind of concrete sense and aren’t just profundity for the sake of profundity. The band is still writing catchy pop. However, their arrangements and ambitions thicken up a bit, reaching near Beach Boy or Beatles level. This makes “The Album” this their most “serious” album and the album that is the easiest to take seriously in their catalog.
The first sign that the band has gotten more serious comes with the very first track. “Eagle” is perhaps the highest point in the band’s catalog as far as pure writing and arranging goes. Sure, it may not be as insanely catchy as their past works. But the song’s mid-tempo stomp is perfectly highlighted by beautiful acoustic guitars, soaring electric work, thick synthesizer landscapes and near perfect use of a flute. The lyrics are a little silly (singing about a soaring eagle) but the arrangements, melody and singing work in perfect unison to create a complete atmosphere of flying. ABBA isn’t known for their atmospheric abilities but this track shows when the band wanted to, they could create a near perfect atmosphere within a pop song format.
However, the very next track on the album is the rather light weight “Take a Chance On Me.” However, while past albums would have been content to focus on the stomping beat and the incredible melodies this song layers on so many arrangement details that the song becomes head spinning. The first and most obvious genius arrangement detail is the acapella introduction: when the boys start chanting “take a chance take a chance take chika chik chance” it becomes impossible not to be enthralled. Then the beat kicks in with layers of keyboard hooks (the hook after “it’s maaaagiiiic” perfectly creates a ‘magical’ mood) and a commanding vocal performance that bulldozes over the listener.
Basically, the album is simply the band completely perfecting their approach and shoving so many hooks and arrangement details into their songs that they transform into mini-art-rock-suites while still maintaining a pop atmosphere. Another great example of this is the song “The Name of the Game.” The song moves through three or four seemingly unrelated sections at will and completely seamlessly. I used to kind of look down on the song when people talked about its complexity. That’s because it doesn’t flaunt it’s complexity: it simply makes it part of the song. Try to explain how the band moves from the clavinet dominated first section to the “doo dooo doo doo” acapella section and watch your head explode: you aren’t genius enough to do it on your own.
And the band can, of course, hardly resist adding another “rock and roll” song to their catalog: “Hole in Your Soul” is perhaps the weak point of the album as it does flirt with silliness. How else can one feel about those basso profundo pronunciations of “there’s gotta be rock and roll…to fill the hole in your soul”? However, the song has a true drive to it and great melodies. The complex introduction is almost worth the price of the song.
All of these songs move by so quickly and are so rich in melodic and arrangement details that the head spins. Luckily, the band slows down a few times on the album. “One Man, One Woman” is a gorgeous ballad that sounds as deep as a valley without really commanding too much real emotion. However, the arrangement details make it sound as serious as an opera aria. “Move On” is another slow song but the its genre is hard to touch: what’s up with those stern sounding Bjorn monologues? How come they don’t sound ridiculous when by all right they should? Perhaps it’s because they’re so perfectly contrasted with the equally stern but incredibly majestic vocal harmonies and melodies of the chorus.
Of course, the biggest sign that the band has gotten “serious” is the “mini-musical” (that’s how it’s labeled) that makes up the last three tracks on the album. Bjorn and Benny would, of course, move on to musicals with their epic (and slightly failed) “Chess” musical with Tim Rice. This first attempt is much more modest and simple in comparison: it tells the story of a young girl seduced by the music business and becoming enslaved to it.
A bit cliché perhaps but the storyline is easily ignored. The musical begins with “Thank You For the Music” one of ABBA’s most loved and well known songs. It has such a potential to be cheesy (just listen to the Doris Day or Carpenter’s version to understand that) and so nearly crosses the line at times. But the melodies are truly heart felt and the vocals are full of such warmth and humility that it somehow avoids cheese and emerges as a real and emotional tribute to music. That’s the magic of ABBA: at their best they were basically cheese epitomized without tasting of cheese.
“I Wonder (Departuer)” is a pure Broadway aria, filled with pianos and dramatic vocal melodies. Not really my cup of tea but I won’t cut the band points for my own taste: it’s obviously written fully in line with the Broadway tradition and still features solid melodies and good arrangements. It’s basically a “story” song in that it progresses the story.
“I’m a Marionette” is perhaps the song that departs the most from the typical ABBA formula and shows what the guys were truly capable of when they wanted to try a bit harder. Sure, the dance beat that kicks in during the introduction is pure ABBA but what of that opening bass riff? Isn’t that a bit too fiddly diddly for ABBA? Where did those thick, dense, depressing strings come in? What are all those dramatic, heart wrenching stops in the song coming from? And what the hell is that Kurt Weil-esque chorus stomp doing in an ABBA song? Why are the lyrics so depressing? “I’m a marionette, I’m a marionette, just a silly old clown.”
A perfectly odd ending to a perfectly odd album. The album remains obtensibly pop while delving into arty formulas the band hadn’t really tried. It’s perfectly catchy and beautifully written yet strange and off beat. That’s the beauty of ABBA: on one hand, they’re the most commercial oriented band in the world. On the other, they’re weird enough to close an album with something like “I’m a Marionette.” Those contrasts are what make the band truly unique and worth investigating and reviewing.