1) As Good As New; 2) Voulez-Vous; 3) I Have A Dream; 4) Angel Eyes; 5) The King Has Lost His Crown; 6) Does Your Mother Know; 7) If It Wasn’t For The Nights; 8) Chiquitita; 9) Lovers (Live A Little Longer); 10) Kisses Of Fire
8.5 out of 10
And ABBA’s streak of perfection comes to a halt nearly as soon as it began. After the success (commercially and critically) of “The Album” the band was stuck in a bad position: they could either stick their guns and stay in their “Euro” pop groove or they had to progress. They had reached the peak of perfection and seriousness with their last album. There was no way they could have really expanded on that album. What could a band as serious yet as seriously commercial as ABBA do in this situation?
Would they go punk? Cute: punk was already dead by the time this album was released and the band was obviously never going to go that way. New wave? Perhaps but that required a certain emotional seriousness the band wasn’t quite ready to touch yet (wait for an album or two, though). The band certainly couldn’t go disco could they? That was already a near dead genre and was already becoming a punch line. They wouldn’t…they couldn’t…they shouldn’t…they did.
Don’t worry: things aren’t as bad as all of that. Yes, this album is a drop down in quality from their last three but not an incredible amount. In fact, I”m having a hard time rating the album: part of me wants to give it an eight for delving so fully into such a “debased” style as disco. Another part of me wants to give it a nine for the quality of the songs. So, I’ll compromise: it’s an 8.5, giving it the lowest rating of ABBA’s “mature” albums.
The problem here is that the band is simply too good at disco to discard their efforts. Yes, it simplifies their sound a little, taking away a lot of the cool arrangement details that made “Arrival” and “The Album” such worthwhile albums. But the band doesn’t lose their ability over night. They just take a little less care with the songs, which does make them a little weaker. But it doesn’t make them bad songs.
For example, isn’t the string arrangement that opens “As Good As New” a lot of fun? It is a little light weight, sure but so is Mozart. I’m not saying the piece is anywhere near as good as Mozart but it has a similar lightweight, fun groove to it. The disco groove then kicks in and fans no doubt slap their head in unison. It’s understandable but the groove is solid and the band varies it up well with the “my my my my my my” bridge: it kind of kills the groove to a degree which is a cool idea in a disco song. The string introduction then serves as the chorus. The vocal melodies and instrumental melodies are all very catchy too.
The very next track, “Voulez Vous” comes next. It is a nearly perfect piece of “dark” disco. The introduction guitar parts certainly sound foreboding don’t they? Then the band kicks in with the dark verse melody which effortlessly transforms into the dark chanting of “Voulez vooooous ah ha!” The horn and string arrangements all reinforce the dark mood of this track. ABBA sure did have a weird understanding of disco.
The next few string of tracks then completely forget about disco for awhile. “I Have a Dream” flirts with a beautiful atmosphere but is a bit more pompous than prime ABBA. The children’s choir is a little tacky but the melody is strong and the arrangements decent. Two years earlier, it would have been a bit more fully arranged. The sitar sounding guitar part is a nice touch, though.
“Angel Eyes” is then just a great piece of ABBA pop that has as much to do with disco as James Taylor. Sure, it has some synthesizers and some strings but that doesn’t make a song disco. Instead, the song has an incredibly memorable verse melody and a set of great climaxes in the chorus. “The King Has Lost His Crown” is another great piece which has more to do with the ABBA style of old. These songs aren’t disco at all.
And neither is “Does Your Mother Know?” the Bjorn sung song of the album. It’s a bit of a controversial number: I think it’s basically fool proof musically, from the opening “bow bow bow”s to the simple guitar parts. Bjorn actually sounds pretty good on the song too. However, the song’s lyrics are way worse than normal as Bjorn tries to warn away a “much too young” fan from trying to sleep with him. But then why can he “dance with you honey, if you think it’s funny” or “talk with you baby, flirt a little maybe” while also imploring “does your mother know that you’re out”? Creepy as shit, especially when combined with Bjorn’s trademark shit-eating-grin.
“If It Wasn’t For The Nights” is probably the least memorable song on the album: it rather blandly and unsuccessfully mines the disco band wagon. Sure, there are a few catchy parts but nothing that truly stands out. “Kisses of Fire” the closing track suffers a similar fate: the chorus melody is much too simple compared to the monster tracks on this album and while it does successful imitate disco it’s a tad too boring in comparison to band’s best disco songs.
“Chiquita” then is one of the band’s best ballads. It’s so gentle and caressing when compared with the more trumped up “I Have a Dream” that it stands as perhaps ABBA’s most nakedly realized song at this point in their career. I used to hate the song but I was a fool for that. “Lovers (Live a Little Longer)” then stands as the most complex song on the album. It has a slight disco feel but it moves through so many tempo, time signature and melody changes that it becomes a weirdo highlight of the album.
As is obvious by this point, the album is certainly not the abortion that many fans painted to be at the time (and even now). Yes, there are more disco elements in the album than is usual for the band. However, it’s not as if these elements were completely absent from the band in the past (“Take a Chance On Me” and “I’m a Marionette” both utilize ‘disco-esque’ beats). It’s simply that the band utilized the elements more sparingly and perhaps more successfully in the past.
The reason for the slight drop off here is because the band was most likely simply tired. They hadn’t stopped working for nearly five years and even geniuses such as these guys are likely to get a bit creatively exhausted. However, each song on here (even the slight ones I mentioned earlier) have good musical ideas. It’s just that the band really didn’t work on them as well as they should have: they didn’t thicken them up enough or treat them with enough seriousness.
I insist though that any fan of the band will enjoy this album if they get rid of their “it’s disco therefore it sucks” mind set. Half or more of the songs are barely even disco! And the band did disco well (there are a few singles which I’ll review later that are even better examples of disco then the band utilized here) which helps make even those moments stand out.
So, while the album isn’t perfect, it helped move the band out of their previous style by replacing it into a new style which focuses more heavily on keyboards, synthesizers and dance beats. The band didn’t completely nail it here but would over the next two albums. Their last two albums are more fully immersed in a synthesized world but are so well done they become highlights of the synth pop genre. And oddly enough, the band would start to write really tolerable, almost good lyrics.