ABBA — The Visitors

When the glorious 70s slipped into the cool 80s, Abba put out their last album. Welcome to some serious art built on divorce, sadness
and savvy.

This is an album that has a long personal history for me. Firstly, I am a child of the 80s who can remember the 70s turning into a big new number. Which means I’m not intimidated or dazed by 80s production values, synths and pompous drum sounds, or the odd spot of chintzy disco. My first record, for reference, was a cheesy disco compilation. Also, my father worked in the Persian Gulf in the late 70s and brought back an impressive stack of bootleg cassettes of everything that was on the charts then. A lot of it in questionable taste, of course, and I’m sure in retrospect he bought so many Abba and BoneyM and Kenny Rogers tapes only because they were so very cheap. But these tapes were my first big musical experience, and I sat around for hours tucking into catchy melodies and dancy beats and even DJing my own compilations. I was also inadvertently picking up a lot of English, as I discovered a year or two later (having moved to Australia from Holland) and finding I could recite lyrics from memory and with sudden, uncanny understanding.

After a huge number of relocations, I’ve now taken the best pickings from the bootleg stash, and keep them for mild nostalgia and occasional archival reference. Their sound quality is far from great and the track order often meddled with ― sometimes you can hear the needle drop on the source record; but it was a great way to be introduced to a variety of music. The experience of music is different (compared to radio) when you can listen to things over and over again, to really let it sink into the gray matter. Music then becomes a part of time and memory, coded in the layering of matter in the brain. You tune into the feel and fibre of music more.

Now that Abba have gone through their revival and re-acceptance phases, it’s pretty safe to come out and say one loves their superb melodies and crafted records again, and not be lamely ironic or kitschily camp in saying so. And now that my musical obsession has, er, matured somewhat, I’ve come to The Visitors with wildly impressed ears.

I have a theory that disco can reach high art at times, but that’ll have to wait because this isn’t a disco album the way Voulez-Vous was. The Visitors is nonetheless riddled with fine melodies and studio power. Damn if it’s not their most mature album musically, bristling with ideas and production savvy ― from the resonance of disco mixing right down to the oompa coda of “Two For The Price of One”. The musical changes and progressions alone lift what in other hands would’ve been an unhappy record, into high contagion of freshness and musical optimism. Everything is proportionate and in service to the song: canny lyrics sung with Nordic inflection; tricky backing vocals arranged with magic variation; boppy and precise studio playing all round. It’s all art.

The album’s sound is explicitly reminiscent of the early 80s ― that is, digitally recorded ― crisp, hermetically sealed and clean music, cool to the ears and yet engaging. {Aside: for contrast, listen to the tinny sound of the extra tracks tacked onto the CD release. They’re wholly second-rate, token song-by-numbers, and illustrative of the soulless end of the digital recording spectrum.} It’s the kind of music my folks would find affable and hummable if they wanted to be with it, contemporary, in 1982; something to nestle in amongst their James Last and Nana Mouskouri albums. Something pre-empting their middle-age divorces.

But in terms of writing craft and technical studio perfection, all I can say about these Swedes is: Damn, they make one with musical aspirations jealous; they had such a good thing going on. They laid down clear lessons in songwriting and chorus construction and melodic hooks and big-ass walls of pop sound. Big-ass catchy walls of sound, mind you ― maybe not as heavy-weight as Arrival, perhaps, but still full and balanced. And with The Visitors they lay on a mature wisdom-post-pain nuance that I {now} find very endearing.

But first, I guess we should consider the final or divorce-album angle. Despite the couples having broken up by this stage of Abba’s history, I don’t think The Visitors was a clear-cut, last-dash effort at unity or the overt swansong statement in the way Abbey Road was. I think they were happy to keep riding the popular Abba juggernaut, happy to look for new themes and approaches to work on. There’s still a strong sense of Benny & Bjorn being in full production control, of carrying on with the established Abba formula and integrating what may.

From the start of Abba, Benny & Bjorn used Agnetha and Frida for their vocal talents in a way that’s reminiscent of session singers and Spector. In discovering the power and success of the vocal pairing, in developing their harmonic sound as they honed their writing and production skills, there’s a growing sense of mutual utility in the band-talent concept. When you look at how adept their promotional work was (the film clips & movie, the media spots, the garish clothing and ultimately ― crucially ― writing some really significantly personal relationship songs), there’s a nagging sense they exploited their own dramas for pop material as well. The songs worked, everyone knew they were couples, and it was all within the Abba-theme scope. So when the divorces came around, why shouldn’t B&B write about the experience. Look at the clips for “One of Us” and “The Winner Takes it All” (off Super Trouper) ― they’re taking their audience/fans along for the emotional ride. Sure, divorce is something of an exploitable pop tradition I hear you say ― from Marvin Gaye to so much Phil Collins. Records can be vehicles of spite and hurt.

But there’s a brazen honesty here that speaks to people in a way Elvis’ kitsch divorce anthems do not. Consider the couple of “When All is Said and Done” at their last dinner together and summing up their time together:

Here’s to us, one more toast and then we’ll pay the bill
Deep inside both of us can feel the autumn chill…
In our lives we have walked some strange and lonely treks
Slightly worn but dignified and not too old for sex.

There’s a candour in maturity here, a certain brass-tacks nerve. This is the music inspired by not one but a double divorce, from within the production core of the band. With so many painful ripples in the band, it’s amazing The Visitors finished up so well. They were willing to keep working within the framework, possessed of a cool (as in calmly detached and unperturbed, withholding of the heart’s passion) and clinical Scandinavian approach to work. A surprisingly honest and direct approach. With discernable traces of broken hearts and cracked emotions below the surface, perhaps; a bitter malevolence waiting to erupt for sure. But with the understanding that the band (or what we’d now call The Brand) was bigger than the sum of its relationship problems, the golden goose in the room.

B&B made the tracks and worked out most of the lyrical concept, and Agnetha & Frida would come in later and cut their vocals in parts or together. There’s no sense of mild distancing you might hear when a singer forcibly sings another’s songs ― the songs are all intimate and sufficient, workable and dealing with it. Imagine being Agnetha or Frida and having to sing (with conviction, and as a duo) these songs about (their) divorce(s) written from the men’s POV; or the little manoeuvring games played in the Polar Studio control room over the mix (‘Sing it like this; and don’t sing there, not like that’); or that oddly aching lyric which you know was planted out of spite (‘feeling stupid, feeling small, wishing she had never left at all’). OK ― this is an extrapolation that may be wildly unrepresentative of the actual sessions as they happened; but there’s such a Nordic sense of professionalism and control about it all, a willingness to resolve without too much hysterical drama or fuss, to remain clinically amicable to each and all. And then, within the inflection, you can limn the cracks and the scars that speak of the hurt. The brave voice that sings the lines back with assurance. The guys might’ve written it, but it’s the singer who owns the song.

As a finished, glossy package, The Visitors is far removed from the harrowing hurt of something like Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, where cold analysis and emotional betrayal are up for terse display and drama. But there’s a similar strain of a writer/director’s personal comment and a painfully public exploration of the inner, private workings of relationship(s); the separation context that informs it.

As divorce music, music for those in a depressed funk weeping copiously with gnawing pains in the heart, or for those experiencing sudden solitude where there had recently been family and companionship and the ‘wonderful adventure’, The Visitors is pretty affecting stuff.

One of us is crying, one of us is lying in her lonely bed…
One of us is only waiting for a call.

― interwoven with cool synths, accordion and reverbed mandolin (ugh, the smattering of adult-oriented pop) ― this is fundamentally music of the heart. And as such it is marked by human contradictions: happy and sadly troubled; determined and also strangely listless.

However ― it must be emphasised that only three or four of the songs are explicitly about divorce, or moving on from broken relations. The other songs offer varying shades of grey autumnal feel (keywords: autumn chill, dark clouds hide the sun, this cold December, winter night, long awaited darkness etc); there’s late night loneliness (“Like an Angel Passing Through My Room”); Cold War paranoia (“The Visitors”); the passing of a daughter’s childhood (“Slipping Through My Fingers”). “Slipping especially goes for the heart ― if seen from a custodianship angle, the child going to school in the morning but returning to an unmentioned father. Single parenthood, shared but distant care, and time passing while one stares away. It could also be less than all that, simply an oblique look at personal ageing ― regret and loss being common emotional tropes on the album. This is the danger of interpretive perspectives in pop music analysis: I could be way wide of the oblique mark. The song is written about the daughter by the father, sung with heart by the mother and really is the mother addressing herself; and so the truth (if any ― ultimately irrelevant) is reduced to the subjective element of how it’s sung, how the song is claimed and what’s taken away from it. It being written by the father would make it strangely empathetic though; a layer of sensitivity below the
emotional mess.

“Two for the Price of One” is another special track. Bjorn takes the cheeky vocal about responding to personal ads (‘The cries for help from different people, different ages’), and there’s a hellishly funky chorus with interlocking A&F backing ― that’s one of the funkiest lines in their catalogue. The changes are sculpted and dramatic in their contours ― hope goes melodically up and disappointment wanders down ― and just when he reveals the third party in an expected threesome is the mother-in-law, there’s a beautiful oompa coda which could only connote the marriage march and (now ironic) bliss. It’s oddly funny, like a mildly bitter in-joke given epic treatment; the wry groom lamenting to his best man, realising what he’s gotten into. It’s on par with McCartney in his medley phase, but with more bite.

Throughout, synthesisers are given more mix-prevalence than on previous Abba albums, but the operating principle is always tasteful. In “Slipping, there’s a lead guitar solo doubled with synths, and in the second repetition the guitar is mixed out to reveal the synths underneath before returning with guitar ― a very pleasing mix technique. Also on “Slipping” there’s a harmonic reversal of A&F’s usual range-roles (‘Sleep in our eyes, her and me at the breakfast table…’), that creates a beautifully sympathetic effect of young voices. It could also be dubbed by a single A or F ― I’m not sure. Of course every backing chorus arrangement is perfect and complex; students of backing harmonies (and the power of the mix) should take note.

“The Visitors” plays at Cold War persecution anxiety with flanging dissonance and urgent drive (but from a Refusenik angle). The (again) doubled synth and guitar solo is strangely triumphant, a feel-good running with fist raised. “Soldiers” transforms what could’ve been a dour song into a classically bright and jubilant chorus. The rhythm section is so calmly authoritative ― pure Abba-unity and songwriting confidence; fully-fleshed backing vocals and clear, engaging melodies. “Head Over Heels” plays a similar trick with its chorus ― follow all the melodies at work in it from its trippity-fragile intro, and you’ll feel the chorus lurching up out of nowhere, like an unexpected key- and tempo-change. Track the held notes in the vocals; if you looked at the music on paper you’d think it wouldn’t make musical sense. And I love that oblique line about the fashionable snob ‘Pushing through unknown jungles every day’ ― the girl who stomps her way through relationships.

“I Let the Music Play” is a bit of an exception in terms of form. By this stage Benny & Bjorn were moving toward operatic show tunes and mini-musicals with stagey themes and big, big choirs. I love listening B&B in interviews; I mean they were pretty canny producers and craftsmen, but the casual ease with which they toss off phrases like ‘… and behind all those vocal tracks you’d then layer your *choirs*…’ (asterisks mine) as though multitrack recording is only fulfilled with massive choirs on every available track. Good old success: throwing money and endless studio time at the Formula. And again, the more remarkable that The Visitors sounds so clean and occasionally spare.

[A special mention should be made of Rutger Gunnarsson, Abba’s master bassist. In particular his work on “One of Us” ― all funky ghost notes and octaves played on a fretless bass, pushed up in the mix with the drums. It’s a step away from the wall of sound perfected on Arrival, and it’s very precise in its crisp economy ― but so damn appropriate! It’s touchstone-hallmark-yardstick bassplaying in total service to the song. And that little bass glissando/burp dropped into the groove here and there ― very cool.]

With ample time-distance, I now find something sad about top-flight songwriter & bands that have astounding success and dizzying creative peaks (I mean the genuine artists, the ones that really deliver the magic goods to match their popularity) and their inevitable downward stroke or dissolution. I don’t mean when the coke and rehab divorces clear; I mean the indirect humanity that occasionally shines thru the cracks with such affecting colour, like on this album.

When bands stop touring and focus on studio work, especially the big-ass studio talents, their albums can become more intimate, emotionally revealing, inward. The Visitors is probably Abba’s highest expression of emotive studio mastery, and it definitely doesn’t sound like it was tossed-off between tours. In terms of song values and melodic craft, it’s almost cloyingly mature, and yet also saddening because these amazing melodies are devoted to breakups and their typically adult aftermath. Not because these are melodies and choruses I seem to have always known and hence regard timeless, but because they are genuinely instructive of how good songs are put together and arranged for dramatic effect. This is what’s surprising about The Visitors after all these years ― the realisation that it’s all incredibly good stuff, that it will carry on.

[At this stage of the article I’d like to remind readers that yes, we are indeed still talking about an Abba album.]

And with all these multivalent sadnesses at work: the breakups and the vocals they inspire (vocals that cannot help betraying their depth), the tension of beautiful melodies married to dark or soul’s-lonely-night themes, and the swansong of a band at its last peak. Though it wasn’t planned as the final release (and they did more work together), it’s still the most mature album they made in terms of depth and craft.

And it’s a dangerous album for depressive types ― it sucks you right in. Its moods are affecting, strong, but then Abba know to layer it with pep and optimism; somehow their addressing the emotions makes for a positive {and saddening} listening experience. You can bracket unhappiness with uplifting melodies and create something unique beyond the lyric content, beyond the obvious.

As a child I hadn’t a single clue this was going on ― I was absorbing the music as music, not as content. But realising the lyric details later and recognising I’d already absorbed some of the colour and tone of adult maturity, that is a little strange.

This essay is also available in the collection Song Logic.

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor. Writer. Secret bass player.

2 thoughts on “ABBA — The Visitors”

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