ABBA: THE ALBUM (1977)
"Getting serious" is not a concept that works well with ABBA. In fact, once ABBA and Arrival had firmly put them up on the big screen, it is hard to imagine how it would have been at all possible for them to "get serious". Start donning black leather? Teach Björn the essentials of chainsaw buzz guitar? Hire Lou Reed as a lyricist? Recast the girls as Debbie Harry lookalikes? Do all these things at once — and come out as the ultimate clowns in the entertainment?
Naturally, they did not resort to anything of that type. And still The Album manages to be that one ABBA record which even the professional haters might somewhat appreciate: sacrificing none of the trademarks of their classic mid-1970s sound, it injects a few extra elements that suggest going beyond cheap entertainment — and, might, in fact, indirectly be responsible for the fact that the band's legacy has so far remained above ground. Who knows: if it weren't for 'Eagle' and 'I'm A Marionette', we might not be listening to 'Honey Honey' and 'Mamma Mia' today.
Just like Arrival, this next record is almost frighteningly consistent — all the more amazing considering the band were superstars now, jet planes and megatouring and parties and all. Its one and only attempt at straightahead rocking ('Hole In Your Soul') is, as usual, questionable — certainly catchy and exciting, but there is always something cringeworthy in the lines 'there's gotta be rock'n'roll to fill the hole in your soul' if the song that contains them is not rock'n'roll at all. But other than that, each song nails its purpose, and quite a few of these purposes are well worth knowing.
At the heart of the album is its "mini-musical", 'The Girl With The Golden Hair', dedicated to the undying issue of the ups and downs of show-business. The innocent and charming young heroine happens to be musically endowed ('Thank You For The Music'), gets whisked away from her little hometown by the temptations of showbiz ('I Wonder'), is sucked into the paranoid whirlwind of the entertainment machine ('Get On The Carousel'; for some reason the song never made it onto the album, but can be seen and heard performed, e. g., in ABBA: The Movie), and finally realizes that she has become a helpless victim of the monster — but, of course, it is too late already ('I'm A Marionette').
The subject is as old as show business itself, but nobody forced the band to go in for all the dark overtones, and for that they deserve a bit of praise; what matters most, though, is the excellence of the music throughout. 'Thank You For The Music', like it or not, is an anthem for the ages, bound to be treasured by sissies around the world just like 'We Will Rock You' is treasured by all the tough guys (and it is advisable to check out the silly cutesy cover version by the Carpenters — who had their share of admirable covers, but totally missed the boat on this one — just to see whatever makes the original so great in the first place); 'I Wonder' is not a favourite, but works well as a solid Broadway-style sendup; and 'I'm A Marionette', ABBA's grimmest offering so far, shows that the girls can pull off a convincing 'desperate plea for help'-style song even in spite of all the Swedish accent. Do not miss Janne Schaffer's exquisite guitar battle with the strings arrangement during the lengthy instrumental section, either.
This final three song-kicker is not even the best stretch on the album, though. The biggest shock comes at the beginning, when 'Eagle' welcomes you with its swelling synth blast and mountainous sound — first and last time the band starts off an album with something that rises high above an effective, but superficial pop hook. 'Flying high, high, I'm a bird in the sky' does not look that great when it's on paper, but few songs I have heard in my life really capture that feel any better with their musical arrangement. The acoustic guitars, the pounding majestic synth riff, the post-psychedelic electric guitar trimmings, the soaring vocals, no other ABBA song does the job of transporting you somewhere else that effectively. Perhaps 'Tropical Loveland' did conjure images of hot beaches and papayas, but what's that next to snowy peaks and heights and swooping up and down along with the torrents of trippy electric licks, and looking down at the world from the stratosphere? This is ABBA's masterpiece.
They could have instead chosen to open the album with 'Take A Chance On Me' — a song that, with its clever usage of the title as the main rhythmic basis for itself, represents further progression over the 'Mamma Mia' approach. Or with 'The Name Of The Game', possibly their best hit in the 'multi-part mini-suite' category. Or with 'Move On', another whirwind-like anthem whose la-la-las are impossible to forget upon first listen. Or even with 'One Man One Woman', the album's most lyrically revealing moment where Frida lets you in on some of the boy-girl tensions within the band before concluding that 'it's never too late for changing' — optimistic, aren't they? — and gracefully ending ABBA's most underrated ballad in the entire catalog.
But they opened it with 'Eagle', and that was a clear signal that the band did try to "grow", if not in overall image or lyrics quality, then at least in terms of complexity, inventiveness, and raw emotion. No matter how much I listen to the song or the album, I can't help admiring all the little tricks and touches that are all over the place. For me, this is unquestionably ABBA's highest point — subsequent records never managed to even begin matching it in terms of exploration (with the possible exception of The Visitors, an album whose "interestingness", however, does not catch up with its lack of consistency). In fact, this just might be the highest point of 1970's "Europop" as a whole — one of the few reasons that prevent us from forgetting the thing ever existed.