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.”
1) Super Trouper; 2) The Winner Takes It All; 3) On And On And On; 4) Andante, Andante; 5) Me And I; 6) Happy New Year; 7) Our Last Summer; 8) The Piper; 9) Lay All Your Love On Me; 10) The Way Old Friends Do
9 out of 10
After releasing “Voulez Vous” one can tell the band may have had a slight re-think of their position in the rock and roll world. The album was a huge success commercially, in spite of its “last one to the party” grab at disco. In spite of its success, I get the feeling the band noticed it was weaker musically than their past albums. That perhaps they hadn’t quite perfected their new style.
Or maybe they simply grew up. It’s hard to tell. Everybody knows that the band members were going through serious personal problems around this time. Basically, the formerly married couples divorced and became simply work partners instead of love partners. This is not a very good method of working and could have lead to disaster. In fact, it did lead to the band breaking up after two albums (during work on a third, which lead to only three album tracks and two singles).
Maybe it was the culmination of a lot of musical reflection and a lot of emotional turmoil but “Super Trouper” is the band’s most emotionally hard hitting album by this point. There are quite a few heart wrenching ballads that somehow feel more “real” than their past ballads. Obviously, the pain of losing each other was hitting the band hard, resulting in a lot of emotional pain that spills out all over this and the next album.
However, ABBA still realized that their upbeat songs tended to make them the most money. It’s understandable: the band is so good at upbeat that it’s hard not to fall under their upbeat songs’ spells. So, the record starts with the nearly incandescently bright “Super Trouper.” Perhaps this is appropriate enough: a “super trouper” is a stage light noted for its brightness.
The song basically works as an encapsulation of ABBA’s past work combined with a more synthesized, keyboard based approach. The “acapella” introduction has a feel of “Take a Chance on Me” while the piano runs sound a bit “SOS” in their simplicity and effectiveness (though completely major key, as opposed to the minor key of that song). However, the “bum bum thumpa thumpa” synth bass line of the chorus is pure “new style” ABBA and the second section of the chorus, which opens up with lots of deep throated “soo pa pa trooo pa paa” vocal harmonies and bigger than life piano and synthesizer textures is a near perfect combination of both styles.
The very next song is as dark as this song is bright: “The Winner Takes it All” is one of ABBA’s truest downbeat songs. Frida truly takes it all here, vocalizing in her slightly deeper tones. The piano and guitar melodies of the verse slightly ramble but not awfully. The pre-chorus of “the God’s may throw a dice” sounds like it’s about to erupt into an ABBA chorus meltdown but it doesn’t take off. It’s effective that way though as it illustrates the downbeat nature of the song. The melodies remain catchy and memorable but downbeat as hell and the “tell me does she kiss, the way we used to kiss” is one of the most heart breaking stretches of music in ABBA’s catalog.
Oddly, the reason the song is more effective is because of better than normal lyrics. Bjorn and completely taken over writing lyrics at this point and had gotten as good as he would ever get with this and the following album. They approach B+ level which is incredible given that this is the same man that wrote the D- level lyrics of “King Kong Song.
Bjorn actually stays on a pretty strong level of lyric writing throughout, especially on the following “On and On and On.” The song is semi-disco in that it’s a dancey song with a lot of synthesizers. The odd introduction is unforgettable and the synthesized voices and heavy stomp are incredibly effective as are the insistent melodies. However, the lyrics actually emerge as somewhat intriguing here: Bjorn is making fun of the celebrity lifestyle in a somewhat insightful and clever way. The lyrics don’t hit as hard as “The Winner Takes it All” but still hover around a B- level, which is outstanding for this band.
The album remains emotionally confusing as it progresses. “Andante Andante” is a slower piece with a high level of keyboards and a silly atmosphere that contrasts heavily with the darker, more heart wrenching feel of “Me and I” which also possesses a slight disco sound. Each of these songs has the typical instantly memorable melodies that the band is well known for writing while also being much more keyboard heavy and a bit “stiffer” in rhythm when compared to past songs.
“Happy New Year” is a lighter than helium ode to the promise of a New Year that is memorable but a tad on the trifle side. However, it’s beautiful contrasted by the darker “Our Last Summer.” The album is also very schizophrenic with the tempos and approaches here. The album is a bit more ballad heavy when compared to last albums but when the ballads are as well written and beautifully arranged as “Our Last Summer” it’s hard not to love each and every single one of the ballads.
In fact, the last half of the album seriously slows down when compared to the first half, as it also features the folksy “The Piper” which is folksy in melody but not in arrangement: as usual for the album, the band layers on a lot of keyboards and synthesizers. However, Benny remains a criminally underrated player and arranger who also possess impeccable taste in synthesizer tones: they never sound generic or boring but alive and unique.
The pen-ultimate track on the album simultaneously stands out like a sore thumb and fits like a glove. “Lay All Your Love On Me” is the darkest of ABBA’s dark disco songs (odd how gloomy this band liked to make their disco, besides “As Good as New” and “Kisses of Fire”) with unforgettable synthesizer riffs, gloomy as hell lyrics and an unforgettable “crash” at the end of each chorus that makes it hard to forget. This reviewer loves it when band’s let the beat…drop.
Oddly, the band closes the album with a semi-pompous song in “The Way Old Friends Do.” Allegedly recorded live with just Benny on accordion, the band then over dubbed a dozen more instruments (mostly synthesizers) to create a rich, full and anthemic sound. Some people think it comes across as incredibly pompous and overbearing while others shed a tear at it’s heart felt nature.
I think the song is well written enough melodically, harmonically and lyrically that it does avoid pure pompousness. Perhaps it would have worked better if it was just Benny on accordion (as it may have captured the intimate feel a bit better) but it also works as a great, anthemic album closer. I tend to think of it as a song designed to help bring the band member’s close together after their failed relationships.
“Super Trouper” naturally featured a ton of great hits and showcased a more mature and interesting band that had fully mastered their stiffer, more synthesized style. The band has also conquered writing in a more personal manner which made their lyrics a lot better than even the previous album. The album is diverse, fun, heart breaking, emotionally engaging and unforgettable.
However, the band didn’t reconcile their personally differences and they grew more depressed. Their last album, “The Visitors” grew even slower, weirder, more synthesized and incredibly introverted.
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.
1) When I Kissed The Teacher; 2) Dancing Queen; 3) My Love, My Life; 4) Dum Dum Diddle; 5) Knowing Me, Knowing You; 6) Money, Money, Money; 7) That’s Me; 8) Why Did It Have To Be Me; 9) Tiger; 10) Arrival
10 out of 10
And finally ABBA truly “arrives.” The title here, of course refers to the helicopter picture on the front cover while also referring to the gorgeous title track. It also refers to ABBA finally reaching the state of perfection they would achieve for two albums and sporadically throughout their career. Benny and Bjorn’s songcraft has been perfected. Agneta and Frida’s voices are now fully utilized. The band is ready to take over the world.
Which they did with this album: the number of hit singles from this album is staggering. Nearly every song on this album was a hit somewhere in the world, with none of the songs getting bigger than “Dancing Queen.” In fact, this song was their biggest hit in America (their only number one in that rather ABBA skeptical country) and deservedly so.
“Dancing Queen” is their signature song and represents every thing good about the band: a great dancing beat, amazing melodies, beautiful arrangements, head spinning singing and a dozen different hooks. What is more memorable: the opening piano runs, the rising and falling choral parts, the verse melody, the chorus melody or all them combined? A nearly perfect pop song that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
Of course, the album doesn’t start with this song: instead, it starts with the rather “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”-ish “When I Kissed The Teacher.” Of course, Sting painted a portrait of an elderly pervert who got what he deserved: ABBA shows a giddy kid, giggling at kissing the teacher. A bit accidentally perverse perhaps, but the music is great: the opening 12 string riff, followed by a series of breath taking vocal melodies and backing vocal harmonies. The backing chants during the verse are probably the best hook on the whole song.
The band doesn’t stop there with the stunning hits: “Money, Money, Money” has the simply incredible and memorable opening piano and vibes introduction combined with a “loop” of cascading piano parts. Benny plays particularly menacing chords here, in slightly “Kurt Weil” manner. The lyrics, intoned dramatically, are perhaps a bit generic but they work. And the melodies and arrangements are perfect. “Money money money, must be funny, in a rich man’s world” is an undeniably catchy memorable chorus.
Again, ABBA sticks with an aggressively upbeat style of music throughout the album. “Tiger” is particularly aggressive: the drum parts in the verse pound like John Bonham while the girls shout out an aggressive, melody that fits the atmosphere of the track perfectly: the chorus has a disco or dance rock feel that contrasts with the pounding of the verses in a way that emphasizes the strength of both, making both instantly memorable.
However, the band doesn’t stick with just this aggressive style. “My Love, My Life” is one of the band’s most effective ballads. The operatic vocal introduction, the simple but genial string arrangements, the melody, the vocalization: I fear I don’t give the girls enough credit for their vocalization. They truly make each of these tracks come to life by the power of their lungs. The “third voice” effect is prevalent throughout this album. Their harmonies on this track are particularly effective.
The band also combines an aggressive and downbeat approach with “Knowing Me, Knowing You” perhaps one of their best known songs. The aggressive guitar parts of this song actually highlight the melancholy of the melody and the lyrics. The lyrics here are not embarrassing but aren’t great either. Fun fact: the song was originally known as “Number One, Number One” as the band predicted great success for the song.
I really hate describing every track like this because it begins getting a bit predictable; great arrangements, beautiful melodies, amazing singing. Each song has its own identity, this is true but each song is ABBA to the core and could never be anybody else.
For example, what other band could take a song called “Dum, Dum Diddle” and not only make it work but make it work so well? The odd synthesizer opening leads to an upbeat, simple but fun set of lyrics and melodies that are highlighted by the nursery rhyme choruse of “dum dum diddle dee dee dum diddle de dum.” Humpty Dumpty? Who knows: the song is hilarious.
“That’s Me” takes basically the same approach of that song meaning while it’s not exactly a highlight it’s a lot of fun and is well written. This album has no filler: even songs like this, which feel like filler are simply too much fun and too well written to call filler. The band put a lot of work into making the album as entertaining as possible.
For example, the Bjorn led “Why Does It Have to Be Me?” may seem like its out of place but it brings in a weird, roots rock feel that the band rarely flirted with in the past or in the future. Bjorn actually sounds good here, with his world weary tenor sounding 100% authentic for once. The band tries to sound “rock and roll” but fails: however, the song understands this and focuses on the campy aspects of the song to make it a goofy highlight instead of a failure.
Finally, the album ends with “Arrival” a piece of “ambient disco” (!) that has such a beautiful melody that the band simply repeats it over and over again, while adding supporting instruments and arrangement twists. But it has a “disco” feel due to the beat that goes throughout the song. Surely, ABBA were never so serious yet (a precursor of things to come) yet they pull it off by focusing on creating a mood and not spoiling it with their banal lyrics. Instrumental wizard Mike Oldfield does a perfect version of the song.
The lyrics on this album aren’t exactly an upswing from past lyrics, however. Yeah the band gradually gets better: starting with ABBA and continuing for the next few albums, they are simply banal instead of embarrassing. No more “King Kong Song” here. Instead, the band focuses on simple love cliches that sound okay with the melodies and the rhythms being exploited.
Basically, don’t come to this (or any ABBA album, bar MAYBE “Super Trouper” or “The Visitors”) if you want to experience some emotions. The band is always faking their emotions. This is not a crime to me, as pop lyrics are generally banal and ignorable. They’re especially ignorable if the band creates such beautiful pop music as on this album. The band’s first perfect album (out of two, alas) that helped set the stage for the band’s (well deserved and fully understandable) conquering of the world.
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.
1) Waterloo; 2) Sitting In The Palmtree; 3) King Kong Song; 4) Hasta Mañana; 5) My Mama Said; 6) Dance (While The Music Still Goes On); 7) Honey, Honey; 8) Watch Out; 9) What About Livingstone; 10) Gonna Sing You My Lovesong; 11) Suzy-Hang-Around; 12*) Waterloo (Swedish version).
7 out of 10
ABBA’s first internationally released album (and their first as ABBA) is an improvement over the rather flaccid (if inoffensive and even occasionally fun) album but not a major one. Everything is just a slight step up from the previous albums with only a few drop offs. This makes “Waterloo” the most diverse and inconsistent album in the ABBA catalog. The good material is great, the bad material is…
…”King Kong Song.” All right, time to say it once again for the benefit of Mr. Kite (guy’s dumber than Mr. Jones): ABBA rocking out rarely, rarely works. And it’s never more apparent here. The opening guitar riff isn’t awful (a bit simplistic but a bit menacing in a dorky type of way) and the song actually does have a thick, rock heavy sound to it.
But then Bjorn comes in and starts singing about King Kong. No metaphors here, no sly wink at the audience to show the band is goofing off. I’m sure the band is (they aren’t dumb guys) but it’s hard to tell with Bjorn: his singing, while pleasant is always so stiff and white bread you can’t tell if the guy has a sense of humor. Yeah, he’s smiling constantly in all ABBA photos, save a few, but that is irrelevant.
“Watch Out” works a bit better in this department but the unconvincing lyrics and atmosphere don’t really create the mood they are trying to achieve. It’s as simple as this: yes, the songs are catchy and even memorable. But I’d be embarrassed to show these songs to a friend. And I’m sure a majority of the world thinks these are lame songs. Bad feel for a “Universal” band such as ABBA.
There are also a few attempts at non-ABBA type sound, such as the “Caribbean” sounding “Sitting in the Palmtree.” Or rather, what the band thinks is Caribbean sounding. It has a pleasant melody but the arrangement is so banal and generic that it’s hard to enjoy.
“Hasta Manana” works a bit better but still reeks of cheese. Oddly, “Honey, Honey” actually works for me, in spite of it being the most sexual sounding ABBA song ever. One fears the band would slip into absolute cheeseball territory with the song but the sexiness of the girls voices and the solid arrangement and melodies of the song help make it work. And “What About Livingstone” sounds way too pompous and self important to be high quality: the melody and arrangements are bad but the band sounds too “word of God” to be adequate.
The band is naturally at their best when they’re doing their whole ABBA schtick. “Waterloo” is obviously the stand out track. It follows a similar “bulldozer” attack with “Ring, Ring” but the melody is more masterful, the arrangement more intricate, the lyrics a tiny, tiny bit better (merely slightly embarrassing instead of completely) and the girl’s really nail the singing.
None of the other songs really “nail” it like “Waterloo” but they are generally better than “Ring, Ring”’s attempts at songwriting. “My Mama Said” is one of the weaker tunes as its a bit generic and boring. But I’ll be DAMNED if I can’t get the chorus out of my head. A solid, if uninspired piece of generic songwriting.
“Dance (While the Music Still Goes On)” begins ABBA’s “dance” song fetish in full. It has a great arrangement and a solid, catchy melody. Lyrics are stinky but again you gotta expect that with this band. It’s one of the better songs on the album but is still relatively primitive compared to “Waterloo” let alone the masterpieces on the next album.
“Suzy Hang Around” is the only song by ABBA to feature Benny Anderson on lead vocals (featuring worse than usual lyrics by the same man who left lyrics to Bjorn and Stig in the future). It has a pleasant ringing guitar line, some solid vocal harmonies, a catchy vocal melody and a nice, plaintive folk sound to it. Not a bad way to close the album.
But I can’t end the review without mentioning the pen-ultimate track. The “beautiful ABBA ballad” style is nailed, completely nailed on “Gonna Sing You My Lovesong.” Yes, the lyrics are absurd but the melody hits emotional buttons that are enhanced by the solid arrangement. This song, along with “Waterloo” really point the way towards future ABBA successes.
So while the album is basically a heavy improvement it’s also a bit of a retreat. The annoying songs on this album are even more annoying when surrounded by the better songs. In fact, the annoying songs on here actually threaten to be worse than the annoying songs on “Ring, Ring.” I wanted to give this an 8 so bad, but then I hear “this is the King Kong song, won’t you all sing along?” and I have to drop the album a point. Don’t worry: from this point on, ABBA would become consistent to the point of pain.
1) Ring Ring; 2) Another Town, Another Train; 3) Disillusion; 4) People Need Love; 5) I Saw It In The Mirror; 6) Nina, Pretty Ballerina; 7) Love Isn’t Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough); 8) Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother; 9) He Is Your Brother; 10) I Am Just A Girl; 11) Rock’n’Roll Band
6 out of 10
ABBA began when Benny Anderson (keyboards) and Bjorn Ulvareus (vocals, guitar) left the folk rock band they were in that was going nowhere fast. The two realized they had a potent songwriting partnership and started to write together quickly. They started working on a series of singles that were going to be put out under the name “Benny and Bjorn.”
That catchy little name expanded when the boys singing girlfriends, Agnetha and Anni-Frid started singing on their material. In no time at all, the band name expanded to the incomprehensible “Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid.” Suddenly, “Anderson,Wakeman, Bruford and Howe” seems a bit less insane.
The four quickly realized they were working on a lot of material. They and their record label decided to put out all the material in the form of an album of music for this oddly named band. Later on, the band’s manager and part time lyricists, Stig Anderson, suggested “ABBA” (combining the first initial of the band member’s name in a rather clever way). This album wasn’t credited to “ABBA” until later.
That’s the basic, basic history of this record. The other that should be mentioned is that it didn’t come out in America or indeed many parts of the world until decades later when it was released on CD for the first time. For all intents and purposes, American’s believed the next album, “Waterloo” was their debut.
How does this record stand up against the rest of ABBA’s output? Frankly, it doesn’t stack up very well because the band was still trying to find their sound. These early albums by ABBA are insanely diverse for this reason. Sure, the band undoubtedly wanted to create a diverse listening experience that appealed to everybody. But they also had a wide range of influences that they hadn’t learned how to completely synthesize yet.
Plus, the band honestly has moments of very poor, stupid taste on this album. Yeah, the band often showed off this bad taste throughout their career, these were usually minor (such as jumping on the disco band wagon AFTER it was dead but still creating great disco tracks (no, that’s not an oxymoron)). Here, however, it’s nearly crippling.
The album starts out strong with the louder than God himself track “Ring, Ring.” I should mention now that Benny and Bjorn were big fans of the Phil Spector “wall of sound” approach. They tended to double and triple track things to make them larger than life. Nowhere in this approach more obvious than in “Ring, Ring.”
The song itself is a bit of a trifle: the lyrics are brain dead even by ABBA standards. The verse and chorus melody are very catchy but much more simplistic when compared to later ABBA masterpieces. But the appeal of the song is not in the melody and lyrics but in the pure sound. The sweep and loudness of this simple pop song is nearly orchestral in texture and approach. And when the chorus kicks in, it’s hard not to feel a big stupid smile erupting across your face. That’s the magic of ABBA: taking dumb materials and potentially cheesy approaches but making them work.
Sadly, this is really the only true “power” moment on the album. The rest of the album is even slighter than this already lighter than air track. And none of them really use that powerful production method. Why should they? It’s clear this album was thrown together as quickly as possible.
That isn’t to say that the songs are necessarily bad, per se. After listening to the album a few times, I still can’t get the chorus to “Nina, Pretty Ballerina” out of my head. I still hear the loud “thump” of kettle drums that hooks me up during the chorus of “Love Isn’t Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough)” and the awkward stomp of “He’s Your Brother” is like jam in my ears. Plus, the album also includes the solid ballad “Disillusion” which has music written by Agnetha, the first and last time she contributed music to the band (much to the disappointment of the boys, who encouraged her to contribute music constantly).
So, the album has catchiness, some diversity (“Love Isn’t Easy” has something of a music hall sound mixed with a generic rock stomp, while “He’s Your Brother” is a bit folksy) and the basic sound of ABBA. Why does it get such a low rating in comparison to the rest of their output?
Well, sadly, because the songs kind of suck. This is where the difference between “catchy” and “memorable” lies. I’ve gone in depth on this before so I won’t dwell but “catchy” melodies stick in your head while the song’s out and fall out seconds after it’s over while “memorable” melodies stay with you forever.
Besides “Ring, Ring” few of the melodies here are truly memorable. They are often trivial to the point of nursery rhyme level with little variation or development. This is truly a rough blow for a band that became true masters of melody variation and development later in their career. True, none of the melodies are exceptionally “bad” but they’re lighter than helium and just don’t stick around as long as you’d hope.
And the lyrics, oh God, the lyrics. True, ABBA always had pretty weak lyrics. And I’d also like to state that if I were to try write lyrics in Swedish, I’d not only do it much worse than the ABBA guys do English, I’d actually completely fail: Babelfish would be my only source of translation and we know how well that would work.
But you can really feel the embarrassment with this album simply by reading the song titles. The songs previously mentioned write about their subjects in the most banal, literal way that it can be hard to take. Yes pop lyrics aren’t poetry but hearing a song about “Me and Bobby and Bobby’s Brother” where the singer is playing in a tree is a tad…childish.
Which is the main problem with the album. It comes across as hideously childish, as if the band was pitching down their ability to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Yes, as a silly, throw off pop album it actually kind of works: it’s ear pleasing and pleasant the whole time. But breaking it down reveals huge weaknesses that simply cannot be ignored, such as when the band tries to lamely rock out on “Rock and Roll Band.”
All in all, though, it has enough pleasant melodies and enough diversity, variation and clever arrangement tricks (I didn’t even go into the band’s arranging abilities yet but don’t worry, I will) to make it listenable. But this should be your last ABBA purchase. You might even be able to live without it, as long as you have “Ring, Ring” on a greatest hits or something. Or if you buy one of those cute collections of ABBA albums that come with bonus tracks.
ABBA is one of the most divisive bands on the planet. This is odd considering they are also one of the most successful bands on the planet. The “art loving” crowd, no doubt, considers the band to be the lowest of the low. Nothing but absolute cotton candy fluff material that never once speaks to the higher cause of man. The lyrics are crappy, the music is gasp danceable (and even disco) and the band’s image as smiling, vapid goofballs couldn’t be less attractive to those who care about art.
Of course, defenders of the band may throw the old “these guys sold millions of albums argument” at the art lovers only to be meant with pure contempt. “It doesn’t matter how many records you see,” say these guys, carefully adjusting their dark rim glasses. “The value of a band lies in the artfulness of the band.”
I actually completely agree with both sides but with reservation. Yes, many great acts have sold millions of albums. The Beatles have sold more albums than anybody this side of Elvis and they were the most influential, important and worthy pop rock band of all time. But then again, artists such as Justin Bieber (who I hate to pick on because it’s too easy but whom serves a purpose here) sell just as many millions of albums but whom has no respect or love from critics.
The problem with the “artists that sell millions are worthy” argument is that unworthy artists sometimes sell a lot of albums. However, how long do you remember bands that are unworthy, no matter how many albums they’ve sold? Quick! Anybody raised in the 90’s, I want you to answer this question: who wrote “Closing Time”? What band was that? Or who wrote “The Freshmen”?
I’m sure that many readers could remember the song but not the artist. That’s understandable: those bands had one hit apiece and were absolutely forgotten afterwards. Okay, 90’s kids, tell me who wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Naturally, almost everybody with a brain knows that Nirvana wrote that song. And critics adore Nirvana as does a wide portion of 2000’s kids.
Here’s one for the 70’s and 80’s kids: who wrote “Saturday Night”? I’m sure some of you will remember who that was: it was the Bay City Rollers. However, how many of you had to really think about it before you answered? You had to hum the song, if you could remember it and think of the stupid looking band playing their dumb song live.
Okay, last question before I move on: who wrote “Dancing Queen”? “SOS”? “Knowing Me, Knowing You”? “Fernando”? “Take a Chance On Me”? I’m sure most people from those time periods who listened to pop radio knew immediately the answer: ABBA.
And this is why ABBA was actually an incredible band, a band that I actually think was the best pure pop band of the 70’s, perhaps of all time. In their prime, these four weird Swedes recorded more instantly recognizable songs than any other band during the same time. They basically conquered the world, commercially, becoming one of the biggest bands of all time. They’re still internationally renowned. Musicals get written using only their music and make it big.
There are a few reasons for this: musically, the band was weirdly diverse. Their albums include an odd mix of folk, pop, funk, disco, dance, prog rock, rock and roll, synth pop, classical stylization, vocal jazz, Broadway ballads and more. Benny and Bjorn, the two guys, had an almost unparalleled ability to blend these styles to their will, mix them in a pop and create a cohesive sound that was not only listenable but universally understandable.
The basic gambit of ABBA, musically, was to combine all of these styles with pure pop songwriting sensibilities. And these two guys were untouched in writing pure pop.
Their song structures featured introductions, verses, choruses, bridges, solos and everything else a great song should feature. They were built on instantly memorable guitar and keyboard riffs. Choruses, verses and bridges all had distinctive melodies that fed off of each other and made nearly every song a mini-pop symphony. Keys, rhythms, time signatures and harmonies changed at the drop of a hat but always in the most effective manner. Nothing was arbitrary or pointless. Take a listen to a song like “The Name of the Game” and tell me the band didn’t understand how to string together seemingly unrelated musical phrases seamlessly.
That said, that band would have been nothing without Agnetha and Frida. Benny provided occasional backing voices while Bjorn provided more extensive harmonies and occasional leads. However, their voices are thin and dorky sounding. They were best at writing, playing amazing keyboards (Benny Anderson is an absolutely, criminally underrated keyboard player, coming up with amazing chords, tones, solos and playing in every style), solid guitar work (Bjorn almost always played basic rhythm while the other guitarists in the band played the hard stuff) and lyrics (mostly Bjorn’s aspect in the band).
Agnetha and Frida, simply put, had two of the best singing voices in the business in the 70’s. Agnetha was the blonde with the higher pitched voice who tended to sing lead. Frida was the deeper voiced singer who sang occasional lead. Both had intense power, tenderness, range and stylistic abilities. Sure, their singing often sounded stiff and weird (as they barely spoke English) but they were often able to power through that with raw power.
But the girls were really only at their most effective when they sang in unison. Not normally a fan of unison (or harmonized in this case) singing but there was something close to magic when these two sang together. The slight tonal differences complimented each other perfectly and when the two sang together, they harmonized in such a way that a magical “third voice” often came up out of nowhere. It’s hard to explain, but listen carefully to them again and you’ll hear what I mean.
However, ABBA is not a band without some serious problems. One of these problem is the band’s serious lack of “edge.” True, a band doesn’t need an edge to be good but the band is an incredibly dorky presentation that can be hard to take seriously. And although they do try to “rock out” from time to time, well, those attempts are as poorly realized as you’d expect.
Another serious problem is the band’s lack of emotional depth. Their first six albums lack any serious deep, cutting moments. Yes, the band fakes it well during these albums but always with big, dopey cheery grins. You can never really take these “sincere” moments seriously. The band didn’t really focus on creating solid, emotionally charged music until their last two albums.
But these emotionally charged moments are highly sabotaged by the lyrics. On one hand, I don’t want to be too hard on ABBA because they were a Swedish band writing and singing lyrics in a language they barely understood. In fact, the band had to get serious help from manager Stig Anderson in this department for most of their career.
On the other hand, bad translations can’t be blamed for the triteness of 99% of ABBA’s lyrical messages. Songs like “King Kong Song” are so batshit stupid that it’s hard to believe the band took them seriously. As poetic texts, most of them get F’s and earlier lyrics sometimes get no higher than C- or D+ as pop lyrics. The band’s lyrics did get better on their last two albums (Bjorn seemed to finally get the knack for expressing himself in the English language) but that isn’t saying much. Both of those albums get C+’s at most as albums, sometimes a bit higher but never getting above a B-.
That said, the band does get extra points for consistency: all but their first two albums are among the highest quality pop in the world during the 70’s and a few are some of the best pop (pure pop, remember) albums ever recorded. The band’s trademark care for their singles actually extends to album tracks. Sure, there can be cheesy moments or slightly less engaging songs, but the band seemed to do their best to pack each song with as many instantly memorable hooks as possible.
I honestly believe that anybody who is serious about pop music should consider checking out or re-evaluating ABBA’s worth. Yes, you might not need EVERY album the band wrote. None of their albums are absolutely essential (although you’d miss a few gems by skipping out on their best albums). A casual fan could pick up the classic “ABBA Gold” or even the slightly bulkier “Essential Collection” or even the “Thank You For the Music” box set. On to the reviews!