Newest Review: ... I was proved wrong from the off. Opening track 'Eagle' is a spacey, almost psychedelic pop number that is even more evocative than Fleetwoo... more
The Album - ABBA
Member Name: cheffrey
The Album - ABBA
Advantages: Very finely crafted, expertly executed and surprisingly enjoyable
Disadvantages: Lightweight and disposable
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.
Summary: A deftly constructed pop album