“The Visitors” Review
1) The Visitors; 2) Head Over Heels; 3) When All Is Said And Done; 4) Soldiers; 5) I Let The Music Speak; 6) One Of Us; 7) Two For The Price Of One; 8) Slipping Through My Fingers; 9) Like An Angel Passing Through My Room
9+ out of 10
ABBA began the 80’s as a personal mess. Their commercial success was still high but the band was a seething mass of interpersonal gripes and confusion. Benny and Bjorn were getting sick of writing pop songs and yearned to write something lengthier, more substantial and perhaps even theatrical. The girls were getting sick of dealing with their ex husbands on a daily basis. And most vitally, the world was getting a little sick of ABBA.
As a result, ABBA’s 1980 album, “The Vistors” ended up being their swan song. It was certainly not expected to be: the band was already in the studio the next year working on a new album, finishing only six songs before finally calling it a day. The reasons for breaking up are two fold: not only was the band getting sick of work together but their commercial fortunes were declining.
“The Visitors” and it’s singles did not move the same kind of big numbers as their past albums and singles. This isn’t to say the album wasn’t successful: ABBA is ABBA and ABBA is money. However, the drop off was indeed noticeable and the band felt it was the right time to just call it a day. After all, while some bands can just go underground or appreciate a cult audience, ABBA was simply not one of those bands. They were meant for mass success or no success at all.
So, what of their final album? Why did it not garner the same kind of hits past albums had earned? Was it simply a back lash against ABBA? Or were the musical contents of a lower quality than in the past? You can see by the grade that this isn’t really the case.
The problem with the album is that it is simply the least accessible, least pop oriented of all of ABBA’s albums. Instead of focusing solely on pop singles (though there are a few moments of that on the album) the band focuses on creating a sustained mood through creative (but minimalist) use of synthesizers and acoustic guitars. Benny had become a master synth soundscaper at this point, making Bjorn’s guitar barely necessary.
The album is also the most downbeat, highly personal album of ABBA’s career. Granted, the band never thrived in ultra personal settings in the past. But the album is truly a departure in that it focuses almost solely on negative emotions, broken hearts, growing old and other middle aged concerns. Townshend (who had praised the band in the past) claimed that ABBA was one of the few rock bands who bothered to sing about middle age (Townshend himself is a big writer on these themes) something which may seem boring on the surface but which is interesting if done well.
Against all odds, though, ABBA does it well here. The lyrics, again, aren’t exactly Dylan quality but they aren’t bad at all. They’re a little aggressively downbeat, yes, but that’s the whole point. While Bjorn will never win an award for poetry, he shows an ability to craft simple but engaging and emotionally resonant stories on this album.
That is except for the one upbeat song on the album, the song that stands out like a sore thumb and which gets even hardcore fans annoyed: Two for the Price of One. This is the requisite “Bjorn” song and it’s easily, easily the worst song in this category. The melody is pretty primitive by this (or really any) band’s standards and the lyrics are truly, truly awful. Hearing Bjorn urge the listener to “buy two for the price of one” (just guess what he’s singing about: Kiss would have been proud, I’ll say that) reminds the listener of his equally questionable rants on “Does Your Mother Know?” Like that song, it’s easy to see they’re trying to pass it off as silly, joking or even against what he’s singing but Bjorn’s singing is so straightforward and earnest that even if the band is being ironic, it’s impossible to tell.
The inclusion of this song is a damn shame because it grinds the album to a halt and seems so out of place. I don’t normally worry so much about “thematic unity” when it comes to an album. I like diversity and a good song is a good song, regardless of whether it sounds out of place or not. Hell, sometimes an out of place song becomes a highlight simply for being so out of place. However, this song completely ruins the mood by not only not fitting the mood but by actively being a bad, bad song.
The album immediately sets the mood with the most sinister sounding, imposing song the band ever managed to create. “The Visitors” features dark synthesizer pulses more appropriate for Peter Gabriel’s darkest work or for the most sinister (har har) of Depeche Mode songs. When the girls come in singing the “Death is at your door” melody it becomes clear that this is no longer the band that opens their albums with something as wildly upbeat as “Super Trouper.”
The lyrics don’t help either: they’re actually some of Bjorn’s best:
“I hear the doorbell ring and suddenly the panic takes me
The sound so ominously tearing through the silence
I cannot move, I’m standing
Numb and frozen
Among the things I love so dearly
The books, the paintings and the furniture
Not exactly poetry but you must remember this is the first song on an ABBA album. Instead of setting a cheerful, happy mood the band immediately sets a dreary, depressing picture. Other lyrics include:
“The signal’s sounding once again and someone tries the doorknob
None of my friends would be so stupidly impatient
And they don’t dare to come here
But how I loved our secret meetings
We talked and talked in quiet voices
The song later kicks into a disco beat but it becomes clear that ABBA is doing a political statement! The song is about political dissidents in communist countries. You may argue the band doesn’t offer any insights into the situation but I would say I appreciate this approach more than trying to go into detail on how to fix the problems with these countries. They go into a more psychological approach which is smart and more universal. Amusingly, some people think the song is about UFO abduction which is understandable but a tad of.
The band tries to bring a smile back to your face with the minor hit “Head Over Heals.” But if the song is supposed to be so upbeat, why is the instrumentation so grim sounding? Why is the girl mentioned in the song so stupid about love? Why does she keep falling head over heals? And why is it painted as such a grim affair, sonically?
The grim affair continues with “When All Is Said and Done.” The introduction seems somewhat hopeful but when the simple ostinato synth bass comes in the song becomes so minimal its painful. The acoustic guitar sticks to punctuating the song with occasional strums. The girls sing unhappy lyrics detailing the end of a relationship, using a bit overdone but effective metaphors and similes.
I don’t want to dwell on this album for pages and pages (I’m already working towards three at this point) so I’m going to point out that the rest of the album follows the basic formula set by the first three. “Soldiers,” “I Let the Music Speak” and “Slipping Through My Fingers” are minimalistic yet effective synth driven tunes with fairly self explanatory themes. “One of Us” was the big hit off the album (relatively speaking) with a genial mandolin introduction. Again, it’s more downbeat than any other given ABBA hit, meaning it didn’t reach too high on the charts.
The album reaches a startling conclusion with “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room.” This elegiac ballad features a single voice and a simple keyboard line as instrumentation. It actually feels like an angel passing through the room, pausing only to breathe a single angelic breath before leaving the room (and your life) forever.
I hate mulling so poetic over an ABBA album but it’s one of those rare cases where I’m really taken aback by the quality of an album. No, this album isn’t exactly high art or poetic. It’s synth driven foundation can be rather wearing and monotonous after awhile. One really misses the thick layers of instrumentation the band had mastered as song after song passes with little more than synthesizers and a single voice (harmonies are majorly down on this album).
I rate the album so highly though because I feel that it really shows how talented the guys were in a way that is outside their normal skill level. The band is really stretching to become more serious and more personal and they mostly succeed. No, few people are truly going to cry tears over this album but the effort and effectiveness of the album make it a great swan song for a great band.
The album is denied the absolute highest ratings because of “Two for the Price of One” and for the fact that it’s simply not indicative of what ABBA did best. That’s “Arrival” or “The Album.” But this brave album definitely shows the band was more than just “stupid pop pap.”