I love ABBA. I was speaking to my friend Nathaniel, and he and I were discussing ABBA in Wetherspoons. With the 7-inch record for ‘I know him so well’ by Benny and Bjorn from ABBA in my hands, he said ABBA is ‘gay music’. Nathaniel is gay himself and meant no harm in what he was saying. But what he said bothered me.
I am a huge ABBA fan. Mum and my Grandma loved ABBA back in the day. My Mum still does. It rubbed off on me, and I have all their albums. In fact, I have the album collection box set with literally all their recorded material that was released. What bothered me about what Nathaniel said was that he viewed ABBA as ‘music for gays’. ABBA are gay icons, for sure, but not all their music was light, catchy ‘pop’. Take for example ‘The Visitors’, the band’s last album.
The Visitors, as an album, marked a maturity in ABBA’s sound. Musically, this was their first album to be recorded digitally. Maturity in the context of ABBA means darker themes, possibly due to personal strains. As you may know, all the members of ABBA were friends and in marriages respectively. They ended, and that led to a lot of stress for the group. This really is ABBA’s Let It Be…just without the public spat, and film, and Phil Spector involvement.
Track One: The Visitors
Firstly, you notice a building symphony of synth. ABBA has always used some electronic musical effects in their work, but this album really uses a lot of synth. The build up makes for an ominous and catching hook to build on. This song really sets the scene of the album, as it portrays the fear and anxiety of strange people knocking at your door, and not knowing who they are. It makes for a prescient piece of commentary on cold war era politics, and the fear of a police state.
Though I like this song, there’s one issue: It doesn’t sound like ABBA. Sonically, this is ABBA. Thematically, this is not ABBA. And that can turn off listeners if this is their first time. If I were you, I’d listen through it. It will catch you off guard though if you are used to their earlier material.
Track Two: Head over Heels
Another very interesting listen, though a more traditional ABBA song. Still synth heavy, but with a vaguely lounge latin motif, it portrays a tempestuous tango-like affair between two lovers. She is the strong, brassy and independent type who will jump into everything without second thought. He, on the other hand, is the more reserved and seemingly meek partner.
The last few lyrics of the song, however, make this piece a more melancholic listen, in context:
‘Think she’s one of those who always has to do whatever she please’ABBA, Head Over Heels
Alright, so forgive the poor English. But it makes it sound as though this woman; admired for her strong will, is actually much more vulnerable, and is doing what she thinks is expected of her. And that makes this piece a strong commentary on being a woman. Today, women are expected to be strong and independent. Not everyone is like that, and this song makes a slightly slanted point on being a woman in modern times.
Track Three: When all is said and done
Quoting a commenter on Genius; a website I use to help write my posts, they say: ‘Comparing this song to the earlier breakup song “The Winner Takes It All” shows the direction in Abba’s work that The Visitors took.“The Winner Takes It All” is a dramatic expression of the pain of rejection, “When All Is Said And Done” describes a more mature and amicable parting of two people who know their relationship is over’.
I think that this is probably the best way of describing this song. Showcasing a level of maturity in both sonic and thematic attributes, it’s another example of how the band skews away from the bombastic love songs of their commercial glory days.
Track Four: Soldiers
Very much in the vein of The Visitors, this song more transparently deals with the threats of the cold war compared to the titular opening track. With a simple two beat structure, akin to the marching of boots. It is a song that discusses how victors of war, and soldiers in general, make themselves the heroes of a narrative. It also says, to me at least, while we try to be peaceful and diplomatic in conflict, we may all one day dance into inferno.
I really like this, and consider it to be an album highlight. Sonic consistency is good in an album, though when it is thematically linked, it’s even better. That is why I love concept albums. While not a concept album, there’s some shared DNA in at least some of the songs.
Track Five: I Let the Music Speak
I haven’t as much to say about ‘I Let the Music Speak’. It is actually one of the weaker tracks, due to the fact it sticks out as it does. I view this one more like a dry run of Benny and Bjorn’s foray into musicals with their next project; Chess. It is good but doesn’t add to the album.
Track Six: One of Us
The only ‘Traditional’ ABBA song on this album. Lighter, poppier, and much more commercial than the previous five tracks. This was ABBA’s last number one single, and it’s a solid one to go out on. Despite this, this song really highlights the in-group tension of the time. The song is literally about a woman trying to revive a relationship with a divorced or separated partner. Who does that remind you of?
Despite post-marital saltiness, it is a good song that portrays the mixture of moods that one may feel having ended a relationship. Between this and ‘When all is said and done’ I prefer the earlier track. I feel that this one is a step back, by comparison to the more mature song.
Track Seven: Two for the Price of One
Another less noteworthy one, which I have very little to say. It is one of the few ABBA songs where one of the men sing lead vocals, with Bjorn taking lead. This song has a bit more levity, compared to the others on this album. It is basically about a man answering a love ad on a newspaper. There’s really not much I can say.
Track Eight: Slipping through my fingers
This song is a love ballad, between mother and daughter. Inspired by Agnetha and Bjorn’s 7 year old daughter, and missing chunks of her life due to touring in other countries, this song has a lot of emotional weight to it. As someone who is not a parent, I imagine that this song would have a lot more of an emotional weight on me if I were one. But it does make me empathise with parents who watch their kids grow up and feel that the time is slipping away.
It is a sad song, but there is a sense of kinship and love that the song portrays very well. If you are not a hardened and cynical soul, then this song will make you want to call your Mother and arrange a catch up or something.
Track Nine- Like an Angel Passing through my Room
The Visitors original album closes with this song (not including all the bonus tracks) and it is one of my absolutely favourite ABBA songs of all time. If I was doing a Tracklist, this song would represent The Visitors. The lush synth orchestrations, coupled with the fact that it is Anna-Frid’s solo piece, allowing her to shine on her own. The strange, ethereal piece is a fantastic way to end an album.
Bjorn and Agnetha both felt that this song was not the best end product for that piece, and there are a number of different demos that have been bootlegged or released by the band that showcase different versions of this song. Some more sparse, and others a bit more conventional. Regardless, I love this piece that we got, and its child like quality really makes me feel a certain sense of melancholic joy.
ABBA is a song band, not an album band. It’s the songs you remember. Big, brashy disco romps about love and romance. The Visitors is really ABBA’s first attempt at making a cohesive album that is more than just a collection of songs. The darker themes were really this album’s achilles heel, turning off a number of the core fanbase.
Bruce Johnston of ‘The Beach Boys’ said it best: ‘It’s hard to innovate when people expect you to play the same hits over and over’.
The album wasn’t helped by the band falling apart. But, then again, this album couldn’t be made if the band continued to remain together and happy. I just wish we could have heard one more album that built on this. I love this album though. And I think it