ABBA takes a real chance: ABBA:The Album – (Atlantic SD 19164)

By John Rockwell - Rolling Stone (Australian Edition) 23 March 1978

Since their 1974 Eurovision Song Contest victory with Waterloo, ABBA has laid convincing claim to being the world’s largest-selling pop group. Certainly, it’s a claim taken seriously outside the United States, but, in this country, the band hasn’t done nearly as well. They’ve topped the singles charts only once with Dancing Queen and have never broken through at the money-making LP level.

ABBA’s songs have always been a calculated blend of six elements: innocently superficial lyrics, bouncy Euro-pop music, rock energy and amplification, soaring melodies, Mamas and Papas high female harmonies and lavish sonic textures. That said, The Album represents an interesting departure from past formulas and will undoubtedly receive a mixed response. There are several songs on it – mostly on the first side – that are cast in the traditional mold and that are as fine as anything the group has heretofore recorded. But side two is a real attempt to do something different, and, if not everything on it works, the effort is still laudable.

Those of us who love ABBA do so because the band is about as pure an example of smart/dumb pop imaginable. Significant rock is all well and good, but there is always a place for pop music that is fun. Most of ABBA’s past hits have been unadulterated pop, with lyrics – written in English by Swedes who’ve always had a slightly quaint conception of English syntax and pronunciation – that operate at the most basic level of childish/adolescent fantasy.

But what really counts with ABBA is the music, and here the group shows genuine originality. Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad may not have particularly striking voices, but both are cute and personable performers vocally and visually, and together they generate a sound that should warm the heart of any fan of The Mamas And The Papas or Phil Spector. However the real talent in ABBA is clearly that of the two composer/producers, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, who also play keyboards and guitar, respectively. Also, the work of Stig Anderson, the group’s manager and co-lyricist, and Michael B. Tretow, the engineer, cannot be overlooked. Together, these men and women create the characteristic ABBA sound, in which those almost invariably irresistible melodies and hooks are enriched with a sensuousness of instrumental and vocal color that may be unmatched for invention and consistency in the history of pop music.

That richness is richer than ever with this new record, and all four songs on side one benefit mightily from it. There is perhaps a slightly greater effort made with the lyrics than in the past, but essentially these are songs worthy of instant inclusion on any forthcoming greatest-hits LP. (For ABBA neophytes, by far the best introduction to this quintessential singles band is Greatest Hits, even if most of the hits weren’t hits in America. Anyone who could listen to this record five times and not wind up humming half the songs is an android.)

Side two begins with a prophetically titled song called Move On, which blends a superb chorous with a text that poses the need for innovation and change like some pop Heraclitus. Move On is followed by The Album’s one overt failure, a stiff attempt at rock & roll called Hole In Your Soul. ABBA may have toughened its Euro-pop with rock energy in the past, but real, blues-based rock music is far from the group’s sensibility, and this sounds both clinical and awkward.

But the last three songs – three scenes from a “mini-musical, The Girl With The Golden Hair – are far more provocative. The lyrics trace the saga of the heroine (presumably Fältskog, though both women have appeared onstage in blonde wigs) from introspection on what a nebbish she really is, to gratitude for the music that has justified her life, to reflection on what things might have been like without fame, to a renewal of ambition and an almost demonic bitterness about how her career has turned her into a mere puppet. The words make clever use of some of the idioms and phraseology of old-time Broadway musicals, and especially in the finale, I’m A Marionette – seem surprisingly self-revelatory, given ABBA’s past impersonality. The music, too, stretches out to include elements of cabaret and musicals, and, in I’m A Marionette, attains a dark frenzy that deepens ABBA’s image without distorting it.

ABBA has taken a real chance with this LP. The group had a formula which, if it hadn’t yet quite caught hold in America, still sold millions of records worldwide. Now, by hinting at things beneath the bright surface of that formula, the band has opened itself up to criticism for not having been profound all along. But, with The Album, ABBA makes it all work, and one hopes that record buyers in this country will respond to the quality and originality of the music presented here.

© 1978 Rolling Stone. Thanks to Samuel Inglles