All the studio albums 1973-1981, digitally remastered with statistic-stuffed notes and bonus tracks previously only heard on 1994’s Thank You For The Music box
OF ALL the great pop hitmakers, Abba have perhaps suffered more than most the inevitable reduction of their musical legacy to an hour of familiar tunes, a state hardly helped by the rabidly successful Mamma Mia musical. Offering some perspective to posterity is the reappearance of all eight albums.
Of the early releases, Ring Ring (1973) was the repackaging of the Bjorn & Benny, Agnetha & Frida (the snappy original band name) debut that tied in with their failed but popular Eurovision entry title track and Waterloo (1974), the first official Abba album, released on the back of their Eurovision success the following year. Naturally, several songs blatantly pitch at the prevailing bouncy’n’cute style of the song competition (though the famous winner was a glorious upbeat subversion), and there is evidence aplenty of Andersson and Ulvaeus’ propensity for hook-stuffed, happy pop music, though at this stage it’s faintly desperate and soulless. Also beware Bjorn’s pathetic lead vocals, their risible attempts to rock (‘Watch Out’) and the patronising plain-female-saved-by-love/dancing/music attitude. However, the beautiful ‘Disillusion’, Agnetha’s only song recorded by Abba, is a little-known gem and an early indicator of a melancholy heart behind the ultrabrite smiles.
The brilliantly corny ‘I Do I Do I Do I Do’ and the magnificently constructed ‘SOS’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ signalled the arrival of the band as mature single-makers, though the album Abba (1975) suffered due to stylistically unsuitable dabbling (the silly clavinet-led funk of ‘Man In The Middle’) and Bjorn’s continuing insistence on singing lead, though the ‘classical rock’ of ‘Intermezzo No 1’ is a laugh.
By Arrival (1976) and The Album (1978), Abba albums became more of a piece. The sound is more consistently lush and widescreen, the boys’ arrangements and production maintain imaginative heights — particularly on the moody, US West Coast-influenced Album — and songs like ‘My Love, My Life’ and ‘One Man, One Woman’ are worthy of their place next to the brilliant ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘The Name Of The Game’. The misjudged Euro-hoedown ‘Dum Dum Diddle’ (juxtaposing the heart-stopping ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’) and the almost ‘rocking’ ‘Hole In Your Soul’ proved, however, that old habits died hard, but by now it was all done to such a tee, it hardly mattered.
Ever with an ear open for fresh inspiration, Voulez-Vous (1979) saw Abba embrace Bee Gees-style disco, and the album kicks along fine, with ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ being a masterpiece of the genre. But there’s a sense that, however good at dance-pop they were, it was the acoustic, anthemic ‘I Have A Dream’ and ‘Chiquitita’ that represent the purer and most vivid Abbamusic of the period.
The perky synth-pop of Super Trouper (1980) couldn’t quite mask the bitter flavour of the lyrics (both married couples within the band had split but soldiered on professionally) and the slight but discernible fading of songwriting ingenuity (‘Put On Your White Sombrero’ is a grotesque, electro self-parody), though the deliciously acidic ‘The Winner Takes it All’ was a late triumph.
The irony of their swansong. The Visitors (1981), is that despite, or perhaps because of, being relatively hit-free (only the lovely ‘One Of Us’ made the UK Top 20), it’s probably their most satisfying and consistent album. It’s dear that under different circumstances, substantial music could have continued to be made, but once you’ve been a hit machine, being a cult album band with your exes wouldn’t have been a top option.
© Kit Aiken, Uncut, October 2001