Monday, 24 September 2012

ABBA: The Album

(#196: 4 February 1978, 7 weeks)

Track listing: Eagle/Take A Chance On Me/One Man, One Woman/The Name Of The Game/Move On/Hole In Your Soul/“The Girl With The Golden Hair” – 3 scenes from a mini-musical – A. Thank You For The Music; B. I Wonder (Departure); C. I’m A Marionette

“If we stick around, we’re sure to be looked down upon.”
(Associates, “Club Country”)

“And when you want the truth, they only spit in your eye.”
(Abba, “Hole In Your Soul”)

Declaration of interest: Abba: The Album - as blank an anti-title as calling a Beatles album The Beatles - was one of the very first albums Lena owned, and she was particularly excited to hear it again for this essay, having danced on the carpet to “Take A Chance On Me,” etc., aged eleven. Then again, after not having listened to it for many years, I think we were both taken aback by how bitter and raging a record it actually is.

Abba: The Movie, which this record was meant to serve as a soundtrack, is really a red herring; or perhaps it isn’t. Like the Streisand-Kristofferson A Star Is Born, I only ever saw it once on television, in the eighties; unlike A Star Is Born, I surprised myself by rather enjoying the film. Like A Hard Day’s Night, it benefits from not being weighed down by too much of a plot; filmed (largely) in Australia, it is basically an excuse for Abba to sing as many songs as possible, interspersed with as much tourist-appeasing footage of Australia as could be assembled. The plot, such as it is, concerns a hapless radio DJ (Robert Hughes, definitely not to be confused with the recently deceased Australian art critic) sent out to get an interview with the group, and his various misadventures as he traipses around various major Australian cities trying to catch up with them. Even here, there is something of a disturbance; I recall that he finally encounters Abba in a “magical elevator,” and, although he gets his interview there, it is unclear whether this is wholly a fantasy sequence and whether this “dialogue” ever actually happens. The director, Lasse Hallström, who was also responsible for the group’s videos, went on to a distinguished film career (My Life As A Dog), but this movie’s mystery remains central.

Similarly, much of The Album concerns itself with unending movement, both as means of transcendence and escape route. The almost six minutes of “Eagle” – an album opener seemingly designed to test their audience – glide on patiently, if agonisingly (both Agnetha and Frida sound increasingly pained with each passing “My-hi-hiiyyy”), charting the course of the bird (the song was apparently inspired by Jonathan Livingston Seagull), before coming to rest on the decisive statement: “What a feeling to fly…and to go anywhere that I please.” Janne Schaffer’s outgoing, onomatopoeic guitar solo says the rest; the song’s emotion suggests severe limitation of personal freedom – the group are indeed soaring over mountains and forests and seas, but always to another concert or television appearance or photo session. In the meantime, the long, grinding secondary bassline is essentially the foundation of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and the rippling, indistinct keyboard and guitar lines throughout presage Simple Minds; the production here, as elsewhere on the record, does not sound at all connected to the seventies. “Move On” finds the group back in its flutey, campfire singalong form, but although “the urge to move on” is emphasised in several places, this is not quite the carefree misery of “Another Town, Another Train”; for a start, the opening verse is declaimed by the booming, echoing spoken voice of Björn, as though he were God. Furthermore, the record’s sense of existential crisis coming to a head is exemplified by the song’s metaphysical-philosophical discourse: “And somewhere lies the answer/To all the questions why/What really makes the difference/Between all dead and living things?/The will to stay alive.” A reference to crying seagulls is met by a crying seagull.

Even the big hits are not particularly straightforward. “Take A Chance On Me” boasts production values – a wonderfully rhetorical arrangement, a deceptively complex time signature, finely balanced female and male vocal counterparts – which embarrassingly put most of the rest of its Top 40 counterparts in the shade (in Britain it unceremoniously deposed the Brotherhood of Man’s wretched wish-we-were-Abba “song” “Figaro” after just one week, as if to remind all pretenders who the bosses were). As Lena put it, it was like pitting Usain Bolt against a snail. But the production sounds much more forward and aggressive than their previous hits, the solo features more distressed (“My love is strong eNOUGH!”), and the song itself is hardly reassuring; she offers herself as a lover only if everyone else deserts him (“when the pretty birds have flown”; so much birdsong on this record) and buried within the teasing is a warning (“You don’t wanna hurt me/Baby, don’t worry/I ain’t gonna let ya”).

As for “The Name Of The Game,” it went further, both musically and emotionally, than any previous Abba single and thus got a relatively muted commercial response (although in Britain, loyal fans sent it to number one for a month). Here’s a modified version of what I said about it on Popular:

The groove doesn’t quite sashay, nor does it fully recoil. The palindromic introductory bassline – like the guitar and keyboard, inspired by Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” - comes forward and then backwards, as though indecisive about whether to commit or to retreat, walking the same square foot of pavement.

The singer has clearly been hurt, or even destroyed, by an unnameable pain of her recent past (see “Knowing Me, Knowing You”) and any confidence she might once have possessed has been shattered. She is reapproaching life with such tentativeness it’s arguable whether she’ll survive the second foot of sidewalk. “I’m a bashful child beginning to grow” – sung by a woman who in 1977 was in the region of thirty.

But that’s what life does to some of us; and the triumph of “The Name Of The Game” is to witness its protagonist slowly and painfully piece herself together again as a functioning human being, capable of receiving love as well as giving it – “It seems to me, for every time, I’m getting more open-hearted”; note the serenely rolling four-beat lines as opposed to the staccato two-liners of “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”

“I was an impossible case/No one ever could reach me,” she confesses, “But I think I can see in your face/There’s a lot you can teach me” – and the poignantly fragile way she sings that last line (you can palpate her tremble) makes you want to hug her right here and now. Then the bold rise to the blossomed chorus: “What’s the name of the game? Can you feel it the way I do?” with its brash acoustic guitar thrash – you only notice after several hundred listens that it’s playing “Wild Thing” – before falling back to highlight the singer’s still fearful doubt: “Tell me please, ’cause I have to know.”

Brilliantly, the instruments then drop out to leave a low-register close harmony acappella backdrop with just one bass drum pulse, as the singer, sounding rather like Olivia Newton-John, leans towards the microphone to caress it and know that glorious intimacy once more – or is it for the first time? You can picture her scarcely holding her balance on the romantic tightrope as she trembles through “And you make me talk, and you make me feel, and you make me show” – turn the volume up and there’s a sudden golden ray of maximalist light: “WHAT I’M TRYING TO CONCEAL”; yes, it’s the exuberant, life-adoring human waiting to be released, liberated – then back to a near breathless request for a pledge: “If I trust in you, would you let me down?” before the demand turns into a torrent of transient dread: “WOULD YOU LAUGH AT ME IF I SAID I CARE FOR YOU?” behind which latter half-line there is a gorgeous and typically Abbaesque baroque flourish of post-Dowland lamentation harmonies. “Could you feel the same way too?”

The second verse is make or break, and she knows she must be nothing if she can’t be open and honest: “I have no friends,” she whispers, “No one to see/And I am never invited.” Then, again, the confessional: “”Now I am here, talking to you/No wonder I get excited.” Her delivery is becoming gradually less vulnerable, though she teeters hugely on the line “But it means a lot to me” so that you are left in no doubt that it means life or death. Within the second chorus she retrieves her lost confidence, as the harmonies multiply into artful counterpart: she’s asking him if he feels the same way while her conscience thinks inwardly (“I was an impossible case,” “Got a feeling, you give me no choice”), and when it comes to the second “make me” triptych her voice is no longer shaky; she knows that it is not a unilateral love, she is emerging out of her previously stifled chrysalis, and she knows that he knows that this is happening; she has been rescued, maybe both of them have been rescued, have rescued each other. A shining doorway back to life; wondrous and multidimensional, and its light is so radiant even now that I almost faint in awe of its benevolent genius. So spellbound am I by the record that it is easy to forget that there are two “she”s here, two voices.

I think the above still stands, but The Album has its own “Knowing Me, Knowing You”; the bleakly hopeful “One Man, One Woman,” although this story is told from only one side, that of the wife/lover who is left to fend for herself during the day as her husband grumbles wordlessly through breakfast and slams the door to go to work. She is clearly already shattered, as the waylaying chord changes (e.g. at the line “And I cry and I feel so helpless”) suggest, and, faced with a very familiar empty room with its open window (through which the protagonist struggles not to jump?), she thinks of the Supremes (“Where did all our love go?”) but resolves that it is strong enough, this relationship, to work, to suffer the bad times. “Daydreams of a better life,” the singer muses, “but I have to wake up”; the key turns in the lock, he is back. “You smile” – the implication of liberation in that phrase indicates that was all he had to do, “just one smile” as Randy Newman/Gene Pitney once put it – “and I realise that we need a shake up.” She regains her strength: “Our love is a precious thing/Worth the pain and the suffering/And it’s never too late for changing.” She conserves her hope: “Somehow we’ll help each other/Through the hard times.” And, foreseeing side two, the phrase: “One chance to take that never comes back again.” In its own, unassuming way (not completely unassuming; note the pained extension of the final “end”), the song is the missing link between Scott Walker’s “Archangel” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.”

“Hole In Your Soul” is perhaps as close to punk rock as Abba ever dared to come. Beginning with a tremendous guitar/drums crash, alternating with peppy Supertramp electric piano, Abba rock out as they hadn’t done for quite some time, if ever. Björn’s deep voice – sounding rather like Elvis, which I am sure was not coincidental – comes in underneath the chorus, which pleads the case for rock ‘n’ roll as life saver. The third verse appears to be a critique of Abba themselves – “it all comes out too bright/You know it’s only a lie,” “the songs you sing/Are too romantic” – but the whole song presents itself as its own warning; don’t get too committed to rock ‘n’ roll, as it may not help you at crucial moments. As a record, however, it is dizzyingly heading towards the eighties, with its over-trebly vocals (which turn into dog whistle-challenging screams), punchy tambourine and effervescent staccatos – here is the genesis of, amongst other things, Bucks Fizz at their (“My Camera Never Lies”) best.

And then there is the mini-musical.

The story is that Björn and Benny set out to write a full-scale musical but subsequently put the idea on the shelf, leaving just three songs; there was a fourth, “Get On The Carousel,” which appears in the film but was never fully recorded – much of its lyrical content was reassigned to “Hole In Your Soul.” Listening to the three songs which did survive, however, I am in part sceptical about whether a full musical was ever needed, or even planned, since these three songs tell the same story very directly, and finally, very shockingly.

There was much bafflement at the time as to why “Thank You For The Music” was not released as a single (it only appeared on 45 in 1983, after Abba had split, and after the stable doors had been firmly bolted), but although it remains one of Abba’s most famous and best-loved songs, hearing it in its proper context reveals that its full strength is derived from its relationship with the other two songs; the triptych forms a sort of “MacArthur Park” in disguise. Agnetha sings the lead, and is full of hope, happiness and expectations; there is even an old-fashioned out-of-tempo prelude verse to the song, and the fulsomeness of Benny’s keyboards suggests a brazen joy in writing an old-school theatrical standard (although at one point he paraphrases his own “Dancing Queen”). Agnetha’s ecstasy is so complete and unarguable (“What a joy, what a life, what a CHANCE!” and she turns that last “CHANCE” into five exultant syllables) that you almost forget to warn her not to step off the precipice; there is an unnatural intensity to her happiness (“Mm-HMMM!”), her engagement with music, such that you fear that if she stops singing she will stop living (as both “Move On” and “Hole In Your Soul” have already suggested). Note the sleeve design of a rainbow that is blocked from reaching the sun by a black cloud.

On “I Wonder,” she seeks to take the chance, and leave. The mood is low-key and minor-key, and she makes it clear that she is, by her own account, walking out on nothing; “this dull little town,” “everything old and familiar.” And then I was thunderstruck by this verse, and the music which accompanies it:

“My friends will get married/Have children and homes/It sounds so nice/Well-planned and wise/Never expecting surprises.”

Or, to put it another way, such a pretty house and such a pretty garden, with no alarms and no surprises. How could Abba be aware that they were helping invent Radiohead (and musically the song is not dissimilar either)? But, at the climax of a record whose theme could be summed up by the question “What is freedom?,” which endlessly ponders the questions of escape, reinvention and the taking of chances (“Take A Chance On Me”), she decides…to take the chance. “It can’t go wrong,” she murmurs, and you know in that split nanosecond that things are going to go horribly wrong.

Did I mention “Gold Dust Woman”? It’s in the same key, and maybe an even more frightening end to a number one album.

Because all these chances, all these dreams, have led directly to a trap, a prison a thousand times worse than the one she thought she’d escaped.

For “I’m A Marionette” is a truly horrific finale, a skeletally grinning inversion of everything you thought Abba were about; here they are screaming at their own audience for the truth, hanging from their own strings. Bear in mind that at the time of this record Abba were probably at the height of their popularity, yet also at their critical low; no one takes us seriously, they seem to say throughout the record – well, let’s rub THIS in your faces. Bass and drums throb – “Something’s wrong.” The anxiety, building up all the way through this most anxious of records, comes to a head and the façade explodes; the chorus is a ghastly (using the word in its proper, non-pejorative sense) Kurt Weill rewrite of “What’s New, Pussycat?” (in case you were wondering when I was going to get to the Burt Bacharach influence on Abba) – and yes, it is also in the same key as “Welcome To The Machine.” Here, Abba systematically destroy your perceptions of them; from “Mother says I was a dancer before I could walk” to “And somebody taught me how to talk, how to walk, how to fall” in two songs. The most frightening couplet is probably the next one: “Can’t complain/I’ve got no one but myself to blame.” It’s worse now, because nobody forced her to do this, or them, but there they are, asking their audience, asking us: “Is this what you REALLY wanted? You run all this way after us…and what have you found?” A smirking mockery of what you thought was life. There is an uncomfortably long, War Of The Worlds-style guitar solo section (Ola Brunkert) after which the song lurches back into nightmarish view; the relationship of the keyboards to the chord changes puts me definitively in mind of mid-period Associates, but soon the entire Abba edifice is brought crashing down, with thundering, free-form guitar and drums, and amidst the wreckage, these final lines: “You’re so free/That’s what everybody’s telling me/Yet I feel I’m like an outward bound/Pushed around REFUGEE.”

A “Revolution 9” with no “Good Night” to reassure.

A dreamer who, if she keeps getting pushed around, might end up as the contemporaneous Frankie Teardrop.

A record of songs about escape, freedom and confinement written by a group who themselves have the strings tied around them. And they did the tying.

If you jerk the handle, you’ll thrill me and thrill me and thrill me.

There’s no help.