Note: I’m reviewing the albums as available in the UK on CD. Track listings sometimes vary from original Swedish releases.
Cover: The first album ever released on CD ironically has cover artwork that doesn’t really work when shrunk down to 144 cm2. The group are in a warmly lit room dominated by a giant mural and are so obscure you can’t really see them.
Best song: One of Us is lovely. Sung by Agnetha, it sounds fantastic. There’s a reggae bass guitar very high in the mix, some delightful vocal harmonies, and a charming melody.
* The Visitors is an enjoyable dance-flavoured opening with a lyric about dissidents in the USSR. There are good synth sounds and a simple structure.
* Head Over Heels, conversely, is a melodically inventive pop tune with a strong bassline and an interesting arrangement. Like the best of ABBA, there are plenty of surprise turns in the music, which make it a fun listen. The lyric is about a headstrong woman.
* When All Is Said and Done. After Agnetha and The Winner Takes It All, this is now Frida’s turn to sing a lyric based on the breakdown of her marriage. She and Benny split as this album was being worked on.
* Soldiers has a lovely, laidback, lazy beat.
* Two For the Price of One – a comic story about a guy answering an ad in the personal columns – is sung by Björn. Never single material, it comes with a lame punchline, which is then followed by a bizarre fade-out horn section.
Worst song: The bland I Let the Music Speak is Benny and Björn road-testing the musical-theatre idiom that was fascinating them at the time. Their famous collaboration with Tim Rice, Chess, followed three years later.
Best CD extra: The best ABBA song not on a studio album – but available here as a bonus track – was the last they ever recorded (in August 1982). The Day Before You Came is a *masterpiece* of melancholy. The lyric, sung brilliantly by Agnetha with dry detachment, tells the story of the boring, monotonous life the character led before she found happiness. Anyone who’s ever commuted, had a boring job, been lonely or felt trapped – ie, pretty much all of us – will surely feel huge empathy with her plight. The deliberately dull narrative is peppered with telling details – the references to Dallas, Chinese takeaway and evening papers – while the repetitive, pulsing backing track is a perfect fit. To pull off storytelling this powerful and poetic in a six-minute pop song is an extraordinary achievement. (Another theory, suggested by my friend Johnny, is that the singer has committed suicide – the ‘you’ of the title being death.)
Best video: As we’re in the 1980s now, ABBA promos are using actual videotape rather than film, while the women’s hair is often terrible. Videos were made of When All is Said and Done and Head Over Heels, but the most interesting is for One Of Us. It features footage of a sullen Agnetha unpacking boxes, hanging pictures, putting up wallpaper, and generally setting up her new home. During the choruses, there are split-screen shots where we see two or more of each girl at the same time (the videotape editor was really enjoying his new tools). The boys appear too, looking moody.
Review: ABBA ended their career edging towards ‘musicals’. At times this album feels like the cast recording of a stage show, with some ornate but sadly rather soulless melodies. The vibrant attack of earlier albums has been toned down. When it’s good it’s very good, but some tracks are on the boring side.
Seven matrimonial advertising pages out of 10.