ABBA: THE VISITORS (1981)
1) The Visitors; 2) Head Over Heels; 3) When All Is Said And Done; 4) Soldiers; 5) I Let The Music Speak; 6) One Of Us; 7) Two For The Price Of One; 8) Slipping Through My Fingers; 9) Like An Angel Passing Through My Room; 10*) Should I Laugh Or Cry; 11*) You Owe Me One; 12*) The Day Before You Came; 13*) Cassandra; 14*) Under Attack.
The Visitors was not necessarily intended to be ABBA's last album, but, given that both marriages were in tatters by the time it came along, and also given a major shift in commercial tastes that prevented the band from being able to combine its musical vision (yes, they had a vision) with further strings of number one hits, I am pretty sure they must have felt some premonition. Already the next year, when they went into the studio once again, they found themselves incapable of putting together an LP's worth of material. With The Visitors, the effort did work, but the results were more than strange.
In fact, I remember actively hating the record upon hearing it for the first time — a shattering anti-climax to Super Trouper, everything dim and wobbly and lacking in polish, and who in the world needs an ABBA album without polish? Also, objective assessment would state that this is the record that has the least share of proverbial ABBA classics — the biggest and, in fact, the only hit from it was the bitter pop song 'One Of Us', and even that was sort of a minor achievement even in the face of their earliest successes like 'Ring Ring' and 'Waterloo'. And who in the world needs an ABBA album without hits?
But there is also a different kind of opinion, and I have been slowly working my way from the former right up to the latter. That opinion states that The Visitors is the only ABBA album that was not, in fact, targeted at all at hit-making; that Benny and Björn, consciously or subconsciously aware that their days as prime hit-makers were at an end, simply let their musical instincts have their way without paying too much attention to the market, and that the songs on here were written and performed so as to reflect the kind of things the people in the band were really going through at the time. Not that ABBA ever lacked a streak of sincerity — from 'One Man, One Woman' to 'The Winner Takes It All' you can observe it quite transparently — but The Visitors is the one and only ABBA album coming straight from the heart.
Therefore, it is only natural that it can take a little more time to sink in; its hooks are not as painfully obvious, its potential gloss and shine mostly sacrificed to give way for a slightly more complex and meaningful melodic approach. Even the lyrics have matured: 'Slipping Through My Fingers', for instance, tells a similar "family trouble" story to 'Hey Hey Helen' (one could, in fact, see the mother-daughter split in 'Fingers' as a natural sequel to the wife-husband split in 'Helen'), but in words that have been chosen with far better care and intelligence.
The weirdness of The Visitors, however, is nowhere as evident as it is in the title track, which some people keep mistaking for a tale of a strange encounter with alien beings — probably because of all the odd sci-fi type arrangements at the beginning, as well as the title itself — but which seems, in fact, to have been written about the persecution of dissidents in the Eastern Europe bloc under Soviet domination: ABBA's one and only overtly political song. It takes some gall to take such a serious subject and arrange it as a fast-tempo catchy pop number ('Now I hear them moving...'), but the slightly paranoid tinge of the melody atones for that, and, besides, in the long run the song's most bewitching part is its opening — a disturbing polyphony of synthesizer tones with Frida's ghost vocals droning in the background: 'I hear the doorbell ring and suddenly the panic takes me...'. Pretty unsettling for a first impression of the world's leading pop band's latest record; no wonder the public did not have the courage to buy into it.
There is plenty of disturbance and paranoia elsewhere as well. 'Soldiers' makes some odd allusions to some upcoming apocalypse, panicky singing and menacing guitar and a strangely "cheerful" chorus that only makes things even more suspicious. 'Head Over Heels', sarcastic character assassination over a dark retro-pop melody. And then there's all the divorce songs, of course: 'One Of Us', 'When All Is Said And Done', 'I Let The Music Speak' (well, the latter is not technically a divorce song, but its main message — trying to find consolation in music without much success — is very much in line with the other two).
But this is still ABBA, and all the paranoia is well-compensated for with elements of beauty: the melancholic march of 'Let it be a joke, let it be a smile...' in 'I Let The Music Speak', the graceful chorus resolution in 'Head Over Heels', the controlled, but burning desperation in 'one of us is crying, one of us is lying...', the humble majesty of 'Slipping Through My Fingers' — all of this is priceless, and its combination with elements of the unusual only raises the stakes.
The album's only misfire, as far as I am concerned, is the Björn-sung 'Two For The Price Of One', a rather forgettable and lyrically lame tale of a goofy attempt at sexual encounter. You'd think that by now they would have learned to leave all the Björn-sung numbers off the record at the last minute, but then, I guess, life would be so much duller if we did not have at least one permanent flaw in our genetic structure. Fortunately, we live in the days when we can all make our own album, and my recommendation is to swap this tune with the excellent B-side 'Should I Laugh Or Cry', much more suitable for the overall tone of the album.
It goes without saying that the album gets an assured thumbs up judgement on all sides, even though it took me some time to become certified. Whether the existence of The Visitors does guarantee ABBA a late-coming blast of "artistic respectability" or not is up to debate. Some might argue that "artistic respectability" is firmly reserved for the likes of the Soft Machine or at least Elvis Costello, and The Visitors does not even begin to touch Elvis Costello. Others might argue from the opposite side — that ABBA were only as good as they were dumb, and any attempt at seriousness on their part would smash their artistic integrity the same way that the career of KISS was undermined by Music From 'The Elder', etc. But these are brainy judgements, while ABBA's melodies were always directed primarily at the heart — and in this department, The Visitors does not fail, although it requires a little more time to succeed.