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Whilst the name of Agnetha Fältskog may not be entirely and immediately familiar, particularly to younger music fans, thanks to the success in recent years of "Mamma Mia!", the name of 70s group ABBA is still very much recognisable and Agnetha Fältskog was one of the As in ABBA. Since the group split up, she has not been a prolific recording artiste by any means. Indeed, "A" is her first album in 9 years, since 2004's "Colouring Book" and her first album of new material, given that the previous was an album of cover versions, in a quarter of a century, since 1988's "I Stand Alone".
Agnetha's last album was a collection of cover songs from the 1960s and right from the opening of "The One Who Loves You Now", you can see why that would have been a good idea. The album cover photo and the clarity in her voice may not give away the fact that Agnetha Fältskog is now 63, but the sound of this opening track would do. From the opening crackle mimicking and old vinyl recording and the gentle piano opening to the clear, understated vocal and the harmonies in the chorus, this sounds like a Carpenters song. That means that what you get is a simple, but effective pop ballad in which the vocals are strong and clear and it drifts along perfectly.
The second track is "When You Really Love Someone", which has a far more robust sound to it, with some electronic sounds and a far more expansive chorus. The result is another finely crafted pop ballad, but with a far more modern feel to the music, leaving the track as a whole with a more 80s or 90s solo artist feel than the 60s feeling of the previous track. Although it's perfectly well put together, I do feel that the style of the opening track worked better than this one does.
Next up is "Perfume in the Breeze", which in the verses particularly reminds me of a ballad by the rock band, Thunder, although it's haunting me that I can't recall which song it reminds me of. It's a decently put together song again, verging towards the mid-tempo rather than the ballad pace of the earlier tracks and it's another well rounded song, but it doesn't really stick out or go anywhere and remains firmly mired in the middle of the road, which is disappointing considering how effective the previous tracks have been.
"I Was a Flower" is a return to the earlier tracks, with a ballad pace and a simple musical arrangement. Once again, however, it somehow lacks the simple, effective beauty of the earlier tracks. Agnetha's vocal is clear and strong and not overshadowed by the music, but for some reason I can't really define, this song doesn't grab me in the way the others have done.
Next is "I Should've Followed You Home", a duet with Gary Barlow. Once again, it's a very simple start, although quite early on, it's apparent that the vocals were recorded separately, as the sound levels don't quite match up properly. It's a simple ballad start, which expands later on into a more modern pop song which doesn't feel quite like a Gary Barlow song, nor an Agnetha Fältskog song. This means it feels slightly uncomfortable, not being entirely sure where it can fit in. Gary Barlow's slightly rough, reedy vocal contrasts with Agnetha's clear, untroubled vocal and I can't help but wonder if this wouldn't have worked better with a more accomplished male vocal. It's a song I enjoy, particularly the line "dance floor dust never quite settles", but it's not quite the complete package.
"Past Forever" is once again a well crafted pop ballad, which allows Agnetha's vocals to shine on their own. The accordion sounds give it a very European feel and evokes street cafes in Paris, but the song, much like "I Was a Flower", just doesn't resonate with me in a way that appeals, coming across as well put together, but missing that certain something which made the opening tracks so effective.
If you hadn't realised previously that Agnetha was a former ABBA vocalist, "Dance the Pain Away" is the song that would bring that home. It's a very 70s disco influenced track, with the bass line it opens with very reminiscent of ABBA's "Voulez-Vous". I wouldn't say I was a huge ABBA fan, but I do rather like this track and, after so many ballads so far on the album, it marks a refreshing change of pace and feeling.
There's an ethereal feeling to "Bubble" as it opens with just an organ and Agnetha's vocals, before the violin and then other instrumentation comes in. But it does sound as if some electronic traickery has been performed on the vocals in that early section especially as it doesn't sounds quite right compared to some of the other vocal work on the album. Once again, this is a pop ballad and one that passes harmlessly by without really grabbing my attention.
One that does grab my attention is "Back on Your Radio", which isn't an especially good song, but does provide something a little different. It's at a slightly higher tempo and sounds like muzak or the bland sort of music you may hear on late night radio or in a lift. There's also been some work on the vocal that makes it sound more generic rather than Agnetha particularly. All of these things should work against this song, but somehow it's strangely listenable and enjoyable, possibly because all of these elements are completely new to the album, meaning the blandness is distinctive.
The album closes with "I Keep Them on the Floor Beside My Bed", which starts impressively apart from the use of some more electronic effects on Agnetha's voice. Once this stops, you get to hear the voice combined with a simple piano and it's a lovely opening. When the chorus arrives with a brief guitar line and then the backing vocals come in, this has expanded into a well rounded pop ballad that doesn't quite match the beauty of the opening tracks for me, but which is a fine way to end what has been a rather good album.
At only 10 tracks and 39 minutes long, "A" is a short album by modern standards, but it can be found for £7.50 for the CD from Amazon, or £7.49 for the downloadable version and I have seen copies for less than £5 on eBay. Whilst this isn't the perfect album, it does contain some very good tracks and some almost exquisite moments. The clarity of the vocals and the modern feel of some of the songs allow you to forget completely that you're listening to a 63 year old singer and you can just relax and drift away on a number of the songs. This isn't the perfect album, but it's got perfect moments and overall, it's a decent listening experience for those who love their pop ballads.
Tracklist: 1. The One Who Loves You Now / 2. When You Really Loved Someone / 3. Perfume In The Breeze / 4. I Was A Flower / 5. I Should've Followed You Home [feat. Gary Barlow] / 6. Past Forever / 7. Dance Your Pain Away / 8. Bubble / 9. Back On Your Radio / 10. I Keep Them On The Floor Beside My Bed