Monday, 26 January 2009

Abba "The Visitors" (1981) (News, Views and Music 19)

“Here’s to us, one more toast and then we’ll pay the bill, deep inside the both of us can feel the autumn chill…We’re still striving for the sky, no taste at all for humble pie, thanks for all your generous love and thanks for all the fun”

“The Visitors” (Abba, 1981)

Not for the first time in my life, it seems the whole world has gone mad over something I can’t bear and can’t even begin to see how anybody in their right mind would enjoy. But unlike other fads such as the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles (‘The Care Bears have turned green and grown shells!’), unlike Take That (why were this drippy band popular the first time round, never mind the second?!?), unlike Lord Of the Rings (for the first time ever Mike and I disagree over something, but in my opinion these yawn-inducing films are only interesting if you like New Zealand travelogues with bad computer models imposed on top – and something has gone badly wrong when your most interesting, believable and best acted character is a CGI model, take a bow Gollem!) and – God help us – The Spice Girls, I thought I actually stood a chance at liking the ‘Mamma Mia’ film. I was wrong.

I seem to be on my own here, but the best Abba tracks are the ones that hardly anybody knows, the ones where the Swedish foursome sound like genuine pioneers and craftsmen, not just the human incarnations of Ikea and the Swedish Chef off the Muppets (cute but ultimately rather bumbling amateurs with a cursory understanding of the English language and a tendency to throw things and/or come off at the hinges). Music’s other fab four’s later albums, especially, are chock-full of classy lyrics and simple tunes delivered via breath-taking complex arrangements which are just dying out to be re-vitalised and re-discovered by an audience that seemed to miss them the first time round. Instead all we get here is the mind-numbingly irritating ‘Dancing Queen’ trotted out for the zillionth time and the candidate-for-the-most-teeth-grindingly-annoying-song-of-all-time-not-featuring-the-Spice-Girls ‘Thank-you For The Music’ (even Take That don’t sound this arch and self-aware, although admittedly this song is the least successful part of a mini-musical and isn’t really about Abba at all; thank God the other two parts – on ‘Abba The Album’ – are infinitely better). Neither of these songs make any sense in the context of the film – the film makers don’t even have the good sense to save the former for the obligatory disco scene! – whereas even a song like Waterloo is relegated to the closing credits, even though it makes infinitely more sense (‘Finding my fate is to be with you’).

The musical and now film version of ‘Mamma Mia’ could and should have addressed at least some of these quality issues – let’s face it, the plot was stapled together with such flimsy attempts at including all the songs that everyone knows and loves that far more relevant but less well known songs like ‘My Love, My Life’ (‘Though I know I don’t possess you, run away God bless you – you are still my lover and my life’) and ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’ (‘Half awake and half in dreams, seeing long forgotten dreams…’; a song which would have been perfect for Piers Brosnan being not quite sure if it was really Meryl Streep in his bedroom which was – incidentally – the only scene without a song stapled to the soundtrack) were pointlessly passed over despite the film being quite short (although it seemed like hours when I sat through it). Worst of all, the film took Abba’s songs and made simple karaoke re-makes out of them, ones that wouldn’t tax the poor actors’ vocal chords too much. The whole reason Abba songs have lasted so long is that their slices of innocent fluff are backed up by some towering performances from both the band’s girl singers (who have a range not heard since Grace Slick and Lulu) and one of the punchiest and hardest-working rhythm sections of them all, giving a driving relentless rhythm perfect for the underlying obsession and emotion underlying most of their songs. By contrast, the film soundtrack sounds like a couple of drunks trying to remember songs that they never understood in the first place backed by session musos all too sure that these songs need to be performed as simply as possible (trust me, however easy they sound, most of Abba’s best known songs are ridiculously complicated, as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to sing along with the records).

Abba certainly weren’t the most consistent band in the world (they did after all write ‘Bang Bang A Boomerang’, a track that makes ‘Boom Bang A Bang’ look subtle) but their later work especially has a power and subtlety that would make a great film soundtrack one day – and ‘The Visitors’, their last album ironically, is the album that shows the most promise. The best moment of the film by far is ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ – a poignant, neglected track about Bjorn and Agnetha’s regret at spending so much time on their band that they missed the chance to study their offspring growing up. In this period of Abba history, Bjorn and Agnetha had broken up and Benny and Anni-Frid were about too and the fact that lyricist Bjorn was frequently giving his most naked, emotional outpourings to his ex-partner to sing only makes it more moving. Agnetha’s vocal on this song is delicious (she never puts a vocal foot wrong on Abba’s more emotional songs), full of regret and confused emotions running through her head just out of her reach. The synthesised arrangement comes close to being sentimental, but this is sentiment in a good way – like Bjorn’s previous career-best lyrics like ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, ‘Super Trouper’ and (especially) ‘The Winner Takes It All’ this is moving indeed and all the more poignant given the fact that it’s the last-but-one track on Abba’s album discography.

There are three other 100% classic Abba tracks on this album, each of them even more forgotten and neglected than the last. ‘Soldiers’ is perhaps the one that raised the most eyebrows in 1981 because - despite the presence of a classic pop chorus – it’s as far away from Abba’s formerly cosy image as you can get. This is nothing less than an anti-war protest march and its one of the best to boot. In the olden days Abba would have been up in a tree throwing things at people and demanding they think about the sacrifices made by ‘Licingstone and all those men’ – but here the message is so subtle you almost miss it. The media and recognised image of soldiers is of them being strong – ‘you’d think that nothing in the world was wrong’ – but the ‘storm’ that approaches is all the worse for the lives it will take and the bravery that meets it. Bjorn’s lyric is also brave enough to challenge the idea of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, claiming that when the soldiers fall ‘we too must dance’. This gorgeous song is just as subtle in Benny’s hands, with a relentless marching backing track accompanied by Agnetha singing a counter-rhythm against the beat, well out of step with the rest of the performance and ‘moving forward’ sentiment. Like much of this final album, the song features a cold, clinical performance well out of step with most of Abba’s emotional recordings – but somehow Agnetha’s little-girl-lost-in-the-mix pleas matched against a thundering, computerised backing only makes her fright and fear all the more believable. A definite last-minute triumph for Abba, this would be heralded as a masterpiece in the hands of anybody else.

Even braver is the opening and title track, whose subtitle (‘Cracking Up’) says it all. The girls sound even more alien and isolated in this synthesised arrangement, with their uncharacteristically unemotional vocals all the more chilling given the lyrics they’re singing (‘They must know by now I’m in here trembling! In a terror, ever growing! Cracking Up! My whole world is falling! Going Crazy! There is no escape now I’m cracking up!’) There are two theories behind this song doing the rounds and each of them sound equally plausible. One idea is that the band are talking about the cold war here, with their heroine part of a resistance movement that’s slowly losing the war and the imminent knock on the door and the prospect of meeting frightening visitors driving her half out of her mind (‘These walls…have seen the hope of freedom grow in shining faces’). The second is alien invasion, a prospect not as laughable as it sounds thanks to the alien-sounding musical landscape, treated vocals and the desperate cries common to so many sci-fi films (My earthly things are of no use to me any more! Help me!) Whatever the reasoning behind it, this song is breath-taking, knocking away all of the cosy warmth we usually associate with Abba during their last 40 minutes as a team, a fact all the more moving given that the narrator of the song knows that in just a few minutes’ time everything she knows and loves will be destroyed forever. The surge of emotion that strains at the leash for a full two minutes before finally breaking into a classic if edgy power pop chorus is, however, the logical culmination of many years of Abba template songs which had been doing their best to mix and match choruses and verses for many years. He surging synthesiser riff is another classic touch – in the days of old (best heard on ‘I Had A Dream’) this lovely surging melody-line would have represented the hope for better times expressed in many of the band’s songs – here the band’s most delightful tune yet is trampled underfoot twice by the relentless rhythms of the backing track, with all hoper fading as the narrator switches from her happy nostalgia to her terror that she has just heard alien (in all senses of the word) noises on her doorstep. No wonder Abba broke-up as, after this stunning track, what was there left for them to do?

However, the band’s final statement (barring two non-album singles at least) is almost as stunning. just as penultimate track ‘Slipping…’ summed up Agnetha so well (her concern for family life and hint of sadness), the last word is left to Anna-Frid with a track summing up her power and theatricality – and, in this period of the band’s life – isolation. ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’ is a ghostly track on a haunting album. Just as The Visitors’ album cover shows the band in shadow, all looking in different directions, so this track talks of the narrator’s fractured state, ‘half awake and half in dreams’, looking back on a whirlwind past that sees images go by ‘all too soon’, to the accompaniment of a ticking clock counting down the seconds till Abba’s career is effectively over. This track, which features only Benny and Anna-Frid, is a majestic end to their career, where ‘love was one prolonged goodbye’ and ‘long awaited darkness falls’.

Elsewhere we get four tracks that are far more Abba-like. ‘Head Over Heels’ is a fine nod of the head to the band’s mini-musical making, powerhouse pop song past with Anna-Frid doing her utmost to keep up with her colleagues’ busy backing track and restless, swirly words. Many of Abba’s best known tracks focus on obsession (‘Money! Money! Money!’, ‘On and On and On’, ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)’ – hopefully you get the picture from the song titles alone) and ‘Head Over Heels’ is one of the best. The narrator is so taken with the glimmerings of a relationship that she can’t help herself rushing forward into the new opening in her life, a fact mirrored by the song’s remarkably long list of twist and turns and overlapping vocals. It’s as if lyricist Bjorn (and composer Benny for that matter) can’t wait to get shot of Abba and only to the new things in their life.

‘When All Is Said And Done’ is the closest the album came to a ‘well loved track’. Musically this is Abba as we’ve always known them, with an effortless gliding melody designed to get stuck in your head and stay there, albeit in a nice way. Lyrically, though, this is Abba’s ‘middle-aged’ song – the couple here are no longer the girl-on-a-playground narrator of ‘Suzy Hang-Around’, the scene-stealing teen-stealing narrator of ‘Does Your Mother Know That You’re Out’ or the puppy-eyed love-bitten romantic of ‘Mamma Mia’. Like many of the tracks on this album, this song is ‘one long goodbye’, firstly of Bjorn waving goodbye to Agnetha and reflecting that neither side is to blame for their split and secondly this is Bjorn waving goodbye to us, ‘standing calmly at the crossroads’, reflecting on the ‘strange treks’ we have taken together as group and fans (see the lyric quoted above for more of Bjorn’s moving eulogy for Abba).

‘One Of us’ is slightly less successful, although this song did manage to get to #3 in the charts (and appears in the Mamma Mia film) so somebody must have liked it. It’s strummed ukuleles and emphasis on warmth and emotion are obviously meant to remind us of past successes like ‘Fernando’ and ‘Chiquittita’, but the lyrics are again complex and written by a rather older, maturer head. Unlike every other song on this album (but like many of Abba’s earlier tracks) it’s demand for repetition is its main fault, not its greatest strength. This very template-like lost love song gives us exactly what we think it will, with every chorus and verse (there isn’t even a middle eight!) all counted for. This song isn’t bad by any means and is in its own sweet way another forgotten minor gem of Abba’s late-period ripe for re-discovery, but on this album its frivolous and awkward, an uneasy compromise between the pop trappings of old and the exciting adventurism of the new.

‘Two For The Price Of One’ is a last, final return to the silly side of Abba (indeed, it’s the only side of Abba there was for their first couple of albums or so) and it’s a shame as its probably the funniest of all their comedy material. Vocally, this is Bjorn’s turn to say goodbye and for once there’s nothing very revealing here. ‘Occupation’ rhymes with ‘Railway Station’, the lonely narrator seeks solace in classified ads and (look away now if you don’t want to hear the song’s twist) the special offer of ‘two for the price of one’ means he gets to date the girl of his dreams and her mother! Add in a terrifically catchy chorus, some truly baffling words and rhyming schemes, great counter-vocals from the girls and Bjorn’s weak but likeable lead and you have the perfect summation of what perhaps the Mamma Mia film should have been – innocuous fluff, but innocuous fluff done with a lot of heart and a lot of love, care and attention. We even get a marching Mariachi band for the fade-out, for no other reason than to underline the narrator’s shock at what his love life has got him into this time round.

All that remains to discuss is one half-failed experiment, the theatrical ‘I Let The Music Speaks’ which sounds from the title as if it should be another of Bjorn’s big farewell messages to his fans. It isn’t, it’s merely a chance to let Anna-Frid show off the theatrical side of her personality but can’t match the twist and turns of the thrilling ‘I’m A Marionette’ or the majestic ‘My Love, My Life’. Still, there are sweet bits to the song - which more than any other Abba track sounds like a fore-runner of Bjorn and Benny’s work on their musical ‘Chess’ – and the lyrics do at least offer a fair representation of Anna-Frid’s personality and her ability to act any emotion convincingly (unlike Agnetha who, as discussed, sounds far better when singing songs that are ‘real’). Like the rest of this fascinating album, it’s half-Abba as they always sounded and half-Abba as we always secretly wanted them to sound (or I always wanted them to sound, at least). Dismissed at the time for being cold and clinical, dismissed today for not having enough pop hits on it, I think that the concepts, arrangements and performances on ‘The Visitors’ make it the one record by Abba that will sound even greater in a few centuries’ time than it does now. Overall verdict: ♫♫♫♫♫♫♫♫ (8/10).                

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