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I was recently hit by an odd bit of generational role reversal. The other week I took under my wing my parents' collection of vinyl, since they can't be bothered with turntables any more and are having a clearout. Buried within it are some of my first exposures to music as a whole, and I've had great fun rifling through it. Lurking within was a solitary ABBA album, which I vaguely remember from my youth. It beckoned to me to review it fairly today along side my usual diet of Nine Inch Nails and Black Sabbath; I like a challenge, so on it went.
ABBA aren't popular with serious music critics. Derided by punks, rock snobs and pretty much every music rag ever, they are extremely uncool to like. Seen as utterly commercial, vapid, liked only by wimpy pop fans and only famous cos they won Eurovision, they've been seen as a soft target for ages.
Listening to this, I'm not so sure that's even remotely accurate.
'ABBA: The Album' was released in 1977 at the very height of their popularity. Their tour of Australia sealed their reputation as a pop phenomenon, selling out stadiums and shifting freighter-loads of records. While the world and his dog are familiar with wedding-disco staples 'Waterloo' and 'Dancing Queen', I half expected this album to be full of much the same. I was proved wrong from the off. Opening track 'Eagle' is a spacey, almost psychedelic pop number that is even more evocative than Fleetwood Mac's albatross, although I can't think of too many other songs about being a bird. It is full of gorgeous, drifting chords and angelic harmonies from the girls, and is really quite wonderful. 'Take a Chance on Me' will forever remind me of Alan Partridge, so that was already kind of ruined. It's just a bit too disco for my taste, but it's still deftly crafted anyway.
However, 'One Man, One Woman' and 'The Name of the Game' reveal the side of ABBA that gave them their real strength. While the two girls have very good voices that lilt and soar(and being pretty will always help to sell more records), their secret weapon was the composition team of Ulvaeus and Andersson. Picking apart this album with what basic musical knowledge I have, the songs on here (and indeed most of their songs) are unusual in their structure and arrangement. Their chord progressions are unconventional, and they chop up samba with schlager with pop and reggae and all sorts, but so finely balanced it's clear they know *exactly* what they're doing. It's also evident that they poured concentrated effort into polishing these songs, making sure that they were crafted to perfection. A bit of basic research into their recording procedure confirms this; they would spend up to ten hours straight on one song. That's a level of effort and dedication that can only be considered praiseworthy in the days of autotune, vocoders and ProTools.
Side two, and the shininess of it all carries on. 'Move On' mixes Latin with rhythms with Europop, and is a bit forgettable. It was also jarring to hear a male voice at the fore, but thankfully this stopped after about a minute. 'Hole in your Soul' is a really weird song, which at first blasts out like the intro to a prog rock epic, then into disco breakdowns, then a weird middle 8, all the while sounding like it could be the theme to a kid's TV show. The album closes with three songs which formed a mini-musical 'The Girl with the Golden Hair' starting with 'Thank you for the Music'. Agnetha's voice shines on 'Thank you for the music', and it's a reminder that they weren't just churning out disco hits. Ending with 'I'm a Marionette' this rivals 'Eagle' for oddest song. All choppy rhythms and icy minor chords, it's a bit of musical theatre that is the closest they ever got to being edgy.
For the most part, ABBA's songs are lyrically lightweight and frothy (except for the minor-key ballads about heartbreak when they were all getting divorced and you can actually tell it hurts Agnetha and Frida to sing them), but I think it's all quite forgiveable. English wasn't their first language, and who the hell would turn to ABBA for poetic revelations anyway? I'm beginning to think that derision towards them comes from being tarred with the same brush as Westlife and the X Factor sausage-factory products, because you can buy their greatest hits from the same stand in Tescos. But what sets them apart from the current crop of nauseating acts like Jessie J and Westlife is their musical ability (Jessie J can't sing AT ALL which is why her songs are drenched in autotune and vocoder. Neither can Katy Perry. Lady Gaga can, and I think is blessed with similar pop sensbilities). ABBA's songs usually have some structural twist or alternative take to them, whereas Westlife and the like have theirs created by mathematical formulae. And it's also true that ABBA were a *band*, rather than a group given songs to sing by an accountant/manager then cleaned up and look pretty for the photoshoots. As a self-contained unit formed by like-minded indiviudals playing music they love, they have more artistic credibility than the Sex Pistols.
Well, I'm left surprised. ABBA: The Album brightened up my day, which is surely what the band would have hoped for. I don't think I'll be rushing out to but anything else by them, but I was very nicely surprised by them. I was going to review 'Roots' by Sepultura, but I'm glad I didn't.
"The Album" was originally released in 1978 & featured 9 tracks by Abba
Simply gorgeous &, without a doubt, a stong contender for the best song that wasn't a UK single that Abba ever did. Vocally & lyrically this is a great song.
02) Take A Chance On Me
Abba first UK single release of 1978 was their seventh in total. Agnetha & Frida share lead vocals on this uptempo number which contrasts nicely with the slower songs Eagle and One Man, One Woman.
03) One Man One Woman
For me, the weakest of the first four tracks on this album, which isn't to say that it's a bad song, just that I prefer the two singles & Eagle.
04) The Name Of The Game
From the opening notes of this track you can just tell that it has "single potential" written all over it. With a lead vocal by Agnetha it became the group's sixth UK number one in 1977. Hard to decide whether this or Take A Chance On Me are the best single from this album as they're both that good.
05) Move On
When the music to this first starts it feels quite similar to One Man, One Woman but once the vocal kicks in it's obvious that it's a different sort of song altogether. This is a rare occasion where the verses to the song are better than the chorus because, in this case, the chorus is below par.
It's apparent by this point that this is going to be a very different Abba album to any other that's gone before. This is a rather gentle song but unfortunately it fails to make very much of an impression on the listener.
06) Hole In Your Soul
Possibly the most screechy that Agnetha & Frida have ever sounded. Just when you think you know where this song is going there's a slowed down soft middle eight which doesn't fit in at all with the rest of the track.
07) Thank You For The Music
Abba's sort of unofficial anthem features a lead vocal by Agnetha & is, without doubt, the best track on the album between tracks 5 & 9.
08) I Wonder (Departure)
Well written & performed ballad which is probably the runner-up to Thank You For The Music as the best track on the second half of this album.
09) I'm A Marionette
Definitely the oddest track on the album. The verses are decent enough by the chorus slows things down & is rather too stilted form my liking. One you'll either like or loathe.
Later versions also included:
10) Thank You For The Music (Doris Day Mix)
A different version of track 7. I'm not that keen on it. Not sure that Doris day would be either!
After the relatively even standard of "Arrival" the uneveness of this album comes as a bit of a surprise. However, the album's worth buying if only for Eagle, Take A Chance On Me & The Name Of The Game.
Move On, Hole In Your Soul & I'm A Marionette are not typical Abba songs so it'll depend on your individual taste whether you like them or not.
This is my favourite of all Abba's albums, it has so many great songs on it. One example is "Eagle", over 5 minutes long it features some lovely instrumentals. And if "One Man One Woman" fails to move you then you must have a heart of stone. The only weak track here is "Hole in your Soul", it's a bit too screechy for the Abba we know and love. The best song for me is the one that's become their anthem - "Thank you for the Music". This album is over 20 years old, and sounds just as good now as it did then. If the only albums you have of Abba's are Greatest Hits compilations, listen to this one - you'll be in for a pleasant surprise.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Take A Chance On Me
3 One Man One Woman
4 Name Of The Game
5 Move On
6 Hole In Your Soul
7 Thank You For The Music
8 I Wonder (Departure)
9 I'm A Marionette
10 Thank You For The Music