I refuse to come out of the closet … about ABBA.
Even though ABBA isn’t as anathema as they were 20 years ago — back when it was really uncool to like them — I still remember the teasing I received for even daring to show interest in them beyond 1980.
Junior high is when kids are cruelest, and the social ostracization I received for that mishap of taste left an indelible impression. Looking back, perhaps it was the first sign I knew better, but when you’re already squarely in the unpopular category of that social strata, capitulation meant survival.
So, no, I am not going to admit to any sort of ABBA admiration. You ask me, and I will tell you I’m a fag. You ask me, and I will tell you I have every post-Like a Prayer album from Madonna. (Except American Life. I owned it for a month before I sold it for cash. Man, does Mirwais suck.)
But ask me if I like ABBA, and you will witness the very definition of denial.
So don’t think this review of The Visitors is any indication of fandom. No — it’s an evaluation of a work I could have discovered earlier in my life but didn’t. That is all.
The Visitors is the break-up album. Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Faltskog had already divorced by 1979’s Voulez-Vous. Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lynstad followed suite shortly after releasing 1980’s Super Trouper. The Visitors was released in 1981, and it would be the quartet’s final album.
The wane of disco meant a more straight-forward rock style, augmented with some ambitiously orchestral arrangements. Andersson and Ulvaeus, fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber, were itching to write a musical, but they channeled that ambition to ABBA instead.
"I Let the Music Speak" and "One of Us" show ABBA at its most lush.
The songs on The Visitors have a darker, serious tone, a style removed from the bright hits of the band’s peak. The songs are still as melodic as ever, but they’re infused with a sense of loss.
"When All Is Said and Done" expresses some bittersweet sentiments of love gone awry. "Soldiers" deals with Soviet dissidents, while "Slipping Through my Fingers" takes the perspective of a parent watching a child grow up.
The Visitors is an album stamped with ABBA’s trademark vocal harmonies and symphonic songwriting. At the same time, it’s not the ABBA of popular lore.
You’ll find no dancing queens here.
If anything, the album shows signs of what would eventually become Chess, Andersson’s and Ulvaeus’ theatrical collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice — a mix of synthesizers and rock, classicism and pop.
The remastered edition of the album released in 2001 tacks on ABBA’s final b-sides and singles. "The Day Before You Came" tanked when it was released, and the melodramatic lyrics are only part of the problem. And "Under Attack", which would have sounded terrific in 1979, sounds dated in context of other music in 1982. That was the year Duran Duran released Rio, U2 released October and Gang of Four debuted with Entertainment!
Still, The Visitors is an impressive album. A band reknowned for its kitsch sound positively human on a collection of songs foreshadowing its eventual demise.
But how would I know that? It’s not like I’m a fan or anything.