Cold War: ABBA – ‘The Visitors’

❉ Si Hart revisits (ahem) the mature, melancholy winter of ABBA’s discontent.

 “Although they’d always had a melancholy side, The Visitors really embraces the downbeat side of ABBA… There are songs of loss, fear and relationship breakdowns, of soldiers marching and fearful visits from the Stazi.”

Agnetha is busy. Dressed in the same red top as seen in video for The Winner Takes It All, she’s moving on, unpacking her things and settling into a new flat. She’s painting her flat mustard yellow, putting up flock wallpaper, shifting her records and adjusting her paintings. This a long way from the carefree videos of old, with the band united, having fun. Benny is only there for a single shot and even more telling, Bjorn is represented by two photographs. In the kaleidoscope of ABBA singing for the choruses, only Frida and Agnetha are singing and no one smiles. Are they trying to tell us something?

This is, of course, the video to One of Us. The lead single from The Visitors, ABBA’s eighth album, released in late November 1981. For fans, this was business as usual, like the previous year, the album was preceded by a mature and somewhat melancholy single, with Agnetha again singing about the life of a woman who’s lost it all, only this time, she’s the one who’s made the stand, but it’s not worked out.

It’s all rather poignant. The first lines, “They passed me by, all of those great romances. You were, I felt, robbing me of all my rightful chances” are from someone taking charge of their life, only to find that life on the other side isn’t what she thought it might be. Now she’s lonely, staring at the ceiling, wishing she’d never left at all. It seemed so easy, but real life isn’t. It is also, of course, a beautiful song, sung with world weariness by Agnetha, who could always find the perfect way to pitch a heartbreaking song.

One of Us was the last ABBA single that really connected with record buyers. A number 3 hit in the UK, nothing they released after this went that high in the charts again. After six years at the top, ABBA had somehow lost their hit making knack.

The Visitors, though, is a really interesting album. Although they’d always had a melancholy side, this album really embraces that downbeat side of their nature and is full of melancholy songs. There are songs of loss, fear and relationship breakdowns, of soldiers marching and fearful visits from the Stazi. Even the more upbeat songs like Head Over Heels lack the sheer joy of life that ABBA could conjure up in the past.

In some ways, this is Benny and Bjorn growing up and not wanting to retread old ground. Over their previous seven albums they’d written about love, about fun, about going out and now they’d found out the hard way that those things can be lost. Both the couples in the band had now broken apart, their marriages ending in divorce. Studio sessions for this album were, according to Bjorn, frosty and there was a feeling that they were all tired of working together, of being ABBA.

The sound of the album is often alienating. Agnetha and Frida don’t sing together on any of the songs which loses it some of its essential ABBA-ness and most of the songs are heavily synth based, more so even than Super Trouper, which had pointed in this direction. In the title track, even Frida’s vocals are heavily processed, in a way no other ABBA track had ever really attempted before.  It makes this song feel even more unsettling, but it fits its themes brilliantly. This is ABBA meets the Cold War, with the lead character waiting for a visit from the secret police that the character knows is coming. Even though this time the knock at her door is a friend, she knows they’re still coming for her and they will be there eventually. It’s no wonder she’s crackin’ up. This is a long way from Dancing Queen.

At the end of the first side of the album, the song Soldiers seems to follow on from The Piper on their previous album. It’s a song that’s outwardly cheerful, but the more you listen, the more you realise there is fear in the lyrics that the soldiers are coming and that the songs they sing aren’t the ones you’d choose to sing, for good reason. The only way to survive all the thunder and the blinding light is to dance along to the tunes the bugler plays. It’s all rather chilling.

Benny and Bjorn even make the act of songwriting sound rather sinister on I Let the Music Speak. Here writing songs become almost an act of possession, with the music using and seducing the songwriter with their power. Although the lyrics are upbeat and hopeful describing the relationship like being lovers, heading somewhere bright, the music is epic and full of menace and it is sung with gusto, making it somewhat schizophrenic.

It’s not all allegory and violence though. Two songs in particular are the most mature reflections on relationships they ever wrote. When All Is Said And Done is like the flip side of The Winner Takes It All, where one member of a couple reflects that their divorce is for the best. The opening line “Here’s to us, one more toast and then we pay the bill…” is full of resigned realism and practicality. No one here is to blame. This is a song about realizing however hard things are, you pick yourself up with some dignity, say thank you and off you go to start all over again. “Thanks for all your generous love and thanks for the fun.” It’s brilliant.

The other song is Slipping Through My Fingers, a song that celebrates the bond between a mother and a daughter, but laments how quickly the daughter has grown up. Agnetha sings one of her most heartfelt vocals, giving this a wistfulness that seems to come from deep within her. The most poignant line “What happened to the wonderful adventures, the place I had planned for us to go? Some we did, but most we didn’t and why I just don’t know” is heartbreaking. Time passes by so quickly and you have to grab each minute before they pass by forever. It’s a beautiful sentiment.

The two more upbeat songs don’t quite hit the heights they aim for, as if their hearts aren’t quite in it. Head Over Heels’ tale of a fashion model and her long-suffering boyfriend is fun but rather banal, standing out from the rest of the album with its carnival like synth introduction and a spirited chorus. Meanwhile Bjorn takes lead vocal on Two For The Price of One, which has long been derided as one of the worst songs ABBA ever recorded. That’s rather unfair, as it’s not nearly as bad as you remember. While its story of a man looking for a wife isn’t anything new for ABBA a joke song is a bit of a departure.    The punchline that his two for the price of one is Alice Whiting and her mother, isn’t bad as punchlines go and its certainly better than other attempts they’d made at songs with a twist earlier in their career.  In other hands this might have worked better.

The album finishes with the rather ominous Like An Angel Passing Through My Room. The deluxe release of the album features a ten minute compilation of the various iterations this song went through before they found an arrangement they liked. It was a bit disco and upbeat for a while, a duet (it was lovely to hear Agnetha and Frida singing together here), and spoken words over a backing vocal; fascinating glimpses but none of them were as convincing as the simple arrangement found on the album. This features one of Frida’s more beautiful vocals and it feels like a sinister lullaby. The angel passes through and just leaves a clock ticking… tick, tick, tick… stop. It’s a perfect ending.

A challenging listen The Visitors might be, but I have to admit I absolutely adore it. With hindsight, it was a strange album for my parents to give me for Christmas 1981. I was a huge ABBA fan, aged 6, quite probably the wrong age for this album, but I loved it from the moment I first heard it. I was seduced by the epic music, even if I couldn’t understand what they were singing about. It’d take me years to fathom that, but that just made it all the better.

This is an album I’ve come back to throughout my life and found new things in it and I’ve gained a new understanding of what they were singing about. This is very much an album I’ve grown into and found a new appreciation for as I’ve grown up. From listening to Head Over Heels and grinning sat in the warm blue plastic of my TARDIS Tent under the stairs in the house I grew up in, to now, understanding the wistfulness of Slipping Through My Fingers as my eldest nephew turns 18, The Visitors has been my constant companion since Christmas 1981 and that relationship is never going to end.


❉ Produced and arranged by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, ABBA – ‘The Visitors’ was originally released on 30 November 1981. It was reissued with bonus tracks in 1997 and again in 2001 by Polar Records/Universal, and in 2005 as part of the 2005 Complete Studio Recordings Box Set remastered by Henrik Jonsson. A  Deluxe Edition a with a DVD of rare and previously unreleased material was released by UMG on 23 April 2012.

❉ Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

 

 

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