Tuesday, 21 July 2009

ABBA's The Visitors

The disdainfully understated ripples of off-the-pedestal melancholy on ABBA's Should I Laugh Or Cry are an unequivocal indication of how sophisticated and regal their sound had circumstancially evolved to become: sure their songs were now so brittle that commercial success was drying up and leaving all the wrong stains, of which the public did not want to see (their two in-band marriages ending in divorce, the girls getting older, etc), but their final album The Visitors is a triumph of discreet beauty, solemn introspection and traumatic fantasy, pulled off with stoic dignity, and musical and lyrical grace. Like clouds of thunder breaking, Frida's lightning-bolt vocal reverberates as if stirring through the stagnation of curdled tears. The title track and Under Attack are peculiar 'anthems' - lacking the world-concquering charge of Take A Chance, they are world-weary, alienated and by the very definition of pessimistic narcisism; highly glamourous. Agnetha may have shone vividly on the triumphantly miserable The Winner Takes It All, but Frida bravely steps up to the demands of material that is even darker and emotionally obscured - the frosty When All Is Said And Done is sung with focused grit and may have been 'part 2' to TWTIA's 'part 1' (the same thing could be said for Frida's One Man, One Woman and Agnetha's Knowing Me, Knowing You), but her glass-cut vocal shreds away the misery, a convincing militant campaign of wounded aggression ploughing through their internal collapse. Her tremoring vocal is almost livid, lamenting ruefully that both parties are 'slightly worn, but dignified and not too old for sex', and grimaces the need for 'humble pie' whilst sounding about half a pill from a nervous breakdown.

Below: both freshly single girls fight over the presumably well-endowed camera man's attention...
So the songs on this album are absolutely miserable: the twee 2 For The price of 1, with ironic soft-rock porn guitar, magnifies the joyless sexlife of ordinary people having an open relationship, but has the charm of someone ugly not believing their luck when they manage to pull a drunk person at a bar - one can laugh but is sure glad it's not them. The whispered, jaunty chorus conveys the pathetic promise of 'discretion assured'. The poignant and pensive grown-up lullaby Like An Angel Passing Through My Room is carefully crafted, and sees Frida lying in an empty bed with the other side still slightly warm - I can just imagine Frida singing this whilst smoking a fag and half-heartedly checking to see if her purse is still there. Head Over Heels was a badly chosen single, a disquieting cautionary mid-tempo narrative that is typical of what is on offer here - marking the identity of a femme fatale leading to some sort of 'heels to the ceiling' corruption, the theme of separate lives in a relationship throughout the album is one giant lump in the throat which makes it so stark and unique. With the guys writing the lyrics and the girls singing them, it's tacitly palpable that every word is being frought over: the songs sympathetically mediate their difficulties.

Above: Frida was more than ready for ABBA to split, chosing to persue her ambition to become a lesbian P.E teacher.

One of Us
was the album's only notable international hit single, peaking at number 3 in the UK, and plods away chirpily, as if chipping away at what once was, and is not a million miles away from Fernando. The frigid Cassandra is an acoustic ballad and definite highlight, with an alert and tall chorus burning from the same candle as I Had A Dream. Soldiers is another brave face on despair. I Let The Music Speak says it all and might have been a great album title - 'let it be a joke' is only wishful thinking, but ironically for the listener they created one of the most captivating albums of all time, for all the wrong reasons is the bittersweet uncertainty. Slipping Through My Fingers is soothing and carefully sung almost as adoring as earlier ballads, but 'a sense of guilt I can't deny' is refreshingly honest - they are letting us all down easy.

Above: newspapers weren't to know they would never reunite, hence the subtlety.

ABBA's sense of drama and theatrical approach solidifies to mezmerizing effect, and one feels the chills on all of Frida's vocals in particular. They pull off sounding avidly depressed and serious without ever appearing absurd and ridiculous: it really is an album about fighting to keep hold of one's esteem and sanity, but crucially without the comforting crutch of youth's vanity. The pervasive restrain is as tense as it is beguiling - they do chirp up sporadically, adding subtle warmth and charm with their innate flexibility that never vanishes. The Visitors certainly was not their most appeasing album, but it is a good argument for being one of their best and most brutally honest.

So long, so long, so long!


Mike said...

One of my favourite albums! Love every song.

Diva Incarnate said...

And it's ALL about Frida for once..

Anonymous said...

Originally, "The Visitors" was released with only 9 tracks, although "Should I Laugh Or Cry" was the B-side choice for OOU (Europe) and WAISAD (USA). "Cassandra" and "Under Attack" were recorded during the follow-up album's sessions, which became the retrospective "The Singles."

Anonymous said...

I discovered this group in 78 / 79 after buying a used version of Greatest Hits volume 2. I instantly got hooked on all the standard hit. Next came Super Trouper, which had a enough fast tracks to keep me interested. When The Visitors came out, I hated it. Something had changed, that I coudn't identify at the time. But after listening to it for about a week, it clicked...I loved it. Looking back, I think it was the maturity of the lyrics, along with a break away from the cheeryd happy sound. The title track has such a build up to the chorus....it explodes. Synthesizers and drum symbols clanging, and in the end, all the vocals and backing vocals coming together making for a powerful song. It's a shame theyh did not release this song as a single. It was different enough for the time, but still had the characteristics we recognized as ABBA. I think the weakest song on the album was Two For The Price Of One. It' s too dainty...but you see the developing of Bjorns story telling in his lyrics. It told a story. The last song Like An Angel was the first song they recorded digitally I think I remember reading. Vocals are great as is the symplicity of the instruments. Perhaps though the digital recording techniques the were using made this song sond very brittle though. But after hearing alternate studio versions they tried out, perhaps it was the best they could come up with. All in all though, this is ABBA's best album critically. It would have been a perfect transition into the 80s for the group had they stayed together.