AGNETHA FÄLTSKOG: WRAP YOUR ARMS AROUND ME (1983)
1) The Heat Is On; 2) Can't Shake Loose; 3) Shame; 4) Stay; 5) Once Burned, Twice Shy; 6) Mr. Persuasion; 7) Wrap Your Arms Around Me; 8) To Love; 9) I Wish Tonight Could Last Forever; 9) Man; 10) Take Good Care Of Your Children; 11) Stand By My Side.
To be perfectly precise, the solo career of Agnetha Fältskog began as early as 1968 (yes, let us not forget that ABBA were ultimately another product of the late Sixties), and she had released a whoppin' four solo LPs before submerging her personality in ABBA's collective identity. From what I have heard, those records had their hits and misses, but since I am really not interested in carrying out a highly detailed survey of everything that the ABBA people did on their own, and also since most of these records were really only targeted at the local Swedish market, we will concentrate on the post-ABBA, internationally oriented products only.
People who are not major fans of the band, and are only willing to tolerate them for their melodic skills, but cringe at the production values, general aura, and visual image, will probably fall back in horror at the very idea of looking into the post-ABBA solo careers of any of its members, let alone the girls, who never did anything but sing and dance. To some extent, they may be right — but in reality, the worst thing about the international solo careers of both Agnetha and Frida is that they had the bad luck to sprout in the Eighties, a pretty rotten decade for commercial pop in general. On the other hand, both ladies had solid musical tastes, and knew well enough what it is that separates a well-written and creatively performed song from a hackjob.
Consider this: Agnetha's first post-ABBA LP was produced by Mike Chapman, the driving force behind such cheeseball artists as Sweet, Smokie, and Suzi Quatro, but also responsible for such late-1970s pop classics as Blondie's Parallel Lines and The Knack's debut — just the sort of guy you'd want by your side in order to put the magic touch on a bunch of catchy, harmless pop songs. And songwriting is all over the place: Agnetha herself takes credit for one song only (ʽManʼ), collecting «tributes» from all sorts of collaborators, the best known of whom is probably Russ Ballard (of Argent fame), and making sure that it does not all sound like ABBA. In fact, very few songs here sound like ABBA.
The big hit was ʽThe Heat Is Onʼ, which is a little surprising, considering that it was not all that differently arranged and sung from the original 1979 version by Noosha Fox — talk about the importance of public image and proper promotion, although Chapman's production does shed some of the disco-era gloss and goes instead for a slightly Latin-influenced carnivalesque atmosphere, which is kind of appropriate for a hedonistic tune about proper summer relaxation. Still catchy after all these years, I guess, though admittedly way too shallow even for the ABBA level; but if you have any feeling for «party music» at all, this one's for you.
Diversity is the key, though, as the party spirit of ʽHeatʼ is immediately followed by the slightly paranoid spirit of the Ballard-penned ʽCan't Shake Looseʼ, which even managed to chart in the generally ABBA-unfriendly United States. Its electronic production dates it fairly accurately, but the vocal melody is undeniably catchy, and the subject matter (unbeatable sexual attraction) has always been right up Agnetha's alley anyway. Melodic slide guitar serves as a solid heartstring-tugger on the dark pop of ʽOnce Burned, Twice Shyʼ; ʽMr. Persuasionʼ is a spot-on retro Motown imitation, with Agnetha doing a convincingly sexy imitation of young Diana Ross; and the pop reggae rhythms of ʽTake Good Care Of Your Childrenʼ also lay the foundation for a much better song than could be thought of based on the title — most such songs are just sappy crap, but here the bluesy harmonica, the occasional odd police whistle, and the deep background vocals add a pinch of suspense and even impending danger.
The straightforward ballads are a different kind of story: lacking the genius hooks of ABBA composers, they always run the risk of being little other than generic mush. The title track, written by Chapman himself, is way too deep in «Disney princess» territory; its vocal melody, journeying across a tricky, challenging path, has some merit, but should have been supported by something other than the old predictable «strings of paradise». Agnetha's own ʽManʼ is a sincere attempt to write something in the old ABBA style, and some of the vocal moves show that it may have been unfair for Benny and Björn not to ever let the girls partage of the songwriting credits; but the accompanying music, again, is completely non-descript.
Still, on the whole this is a pleasant surprise. Stereotypical male chauvinist thinking tends to regard Agnetha as the «dumb blonde» and Frida as the «risky redhead», and it is true that, artistically, Frida's solo debut was a little bit more intriguing, but the question here is not whether these albums show you the meaning of life — the question is whether you are guaranteed to fall asleep on the third song, as it happens with so much generic pop muzak, and Wrap Your Arms Around Me, despite its generally uneven quality, is still very far from what I'd call a typically boring album. Besides, if you get the deluxe edition, one of the bonus tracks is ʽIt's So Nice To Be Richʼ, a tune recorded for a 1983 Swedish movie that has to count as one of the most hilariously campy things to ever come out of the whole ABBA camp (sort of a spiritual successor to ʽMoney Money Moneyʼ, only adapted to the Eighties' style). Thumbs up, definitely.