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.