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Listening to: ABBA, The Visitors

ABBA The Visitors

I’ve had a 26-year love affair with this album. This was one of the first records I bought with my own money. I was 11 or 12 when it came out. ABBA was accessible, wonderfully well-produced, very very catchy yet musically complex pop. In a way, perhaps the last 2 or 3 ABBA albums are a good example or the ‘autumn years’ of complex pop.

They occupy a point in time before music like this became associated primarily with show tunes, gay people and retro disco parties, but after studio technology was audibly a hurdle to be overcome. Andersson and Ulvaeus were masters of composition, arrangement and studio technology. For me, it’s with ABBA’s work after the mid-1970s (and perhaps Fleetwood Mac’s work from the same era) that the limitations of studio technology become truly inaudible for the first time.

I have marveled at different things related to The Visitors at different times. As a kid, the melodies and harmonies burned themselves into my brain. This is music I’ll never forget, like riding a bike or swimming. Today, I can appreciate the timeless nature of the balanced arrangements and production values, especially since I now understand how much work it must have been – back then – to achieve something that sounds so effortless. I can also appreciate the songcraft better today: Andersson & Ulvaeus, like Lennon/McCartney, wrote great songs even when they were tossing off album filler tracks. And the lyrics! Everything rhymes! This is almost completely unheard of in popular music today, where cadence and rhythmic delivery compensate for a complete absence of rhyme. The rhyming bit is particularly impressive for two Swedish guys.

The women’s voices are also as wondrous today as they were back then. They bring great clarity and simplicity to these songs; nothing is over-sung or over-emoted. It’s just sung, beautifully, in musically dense arrangements, with lots and lots and lots of overdubbed backing vocals. The backing vocals themselves are interesting, because they employ elements more typical to choral singing (canons, etc.). Choruses are often underpinned by backing vocals that use the same lyrics, slightly changed or syncopated; this is something that wasn’t done much after the Beach Boys’ heyday.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t comment on the musicianship. In a way, it goes without saying that ABBA’s Swedish studio band was an ace team of professionals – ABBA was, after all, the world’s biggest-selling pop band at the time, true superstars deserving of a killer backing band. Yet I still marvel at Ola Brunkert’s and Per Lindvall’s precise, groovy drumming and Rutger Gunnarsson’s rumbling, melodic bass; neither of these have lost any of their original impact in the 26 years since I first heard them.

Most remastered editions of this record contain ‘The day before you came,’ one of three post-The Visitors singles that were ABBA’s final releases. ‘The day before you came’ is possibly one of the most melancholy pop songs ever written. I can see direct lines from it to the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘story songs’ on Actually five years later.

The Visitors will always be in my personal Top 10, I think. I don’t care if that’s cool or not… and I’m not saying that to be provocative or retro :)

Reasonable critical review here. Complete misunderstanding and misinterpretation by Rolling Stone here (perhaps an indication that North Americans never completely ‘got’ ABBA? :)

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