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  • Al Jennings

#InRetrospect - ABBA - The Visitors

In this week’s InRetrospect we are taking a look at the final studio album from every body’s favourite Swedish supergroup, ABBA. Everybody loves ABBA. I grew up listening to their music, and it’s had a profound effect on my life. I wanted to dive into their back catalogue, and I thought their final album would make for a great piece on A Northerner Explores.

1981 was a pretty scary time in Europe. The Cold War raging between the East and the West, and following several years of Détente, things didn’t show any signs of getting better. The same could could’ve also been said for the relationships within ABBA at the time. By this time, both couples had separated and the tension within the group was palpable; ultimately was reflected in their eighth and final studio album, The Visitors, which garnered less commercial attention, however it received critical acclaim for the darker, moodier undertones.

The Visitors marked a change to the Pop-Rock sounds of previous albums, and a move towards ominous synthesizer sounds and more complex lyrics. It is widely regarded as their most complex and mature effort, and possibly their best. Opening with the epic, synth-led juggernaut “The Visitors” ABBA had got political with this Frida-led song which was understood to be a political statement against the political dissidents in the Soviet Union. Ultimately this, and a planned appearance on a US Propaganda programme entitled “Let Poland Be Poland” led to This Visitors being banned from the Soviet Union – not an uncommon move for the time from the communist regime.

With the excepetion of “The Winner Takes It All”, ABBA generally avoided making their private feelings and lives public as part of their music the song “When All Is Said and Done” is one of the rare exceptions and a real highlight of the Album. Written during a time of turmoil, the band have admitted that recent split of Benny and Frida was at their back of their mind during the song writing process. Frida was only too happy to sing the lead vocal on the track, laying every part of her soul on the track as she details all of her sorrow and pain, not only for herself, but for anybody that had been through a separation. Frida later recalled; “All my sadness was captured in that song”, and it shows to the listener, you can hear the pain in her voice as she sings the final line “There’s no hurry anymore, when all is said and done”.

Musically and Lyrically, The Visitors goes deeper than previous albums. There are hints into Benny and Bjorn’s movement into Musical Theatre with songs like “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “I Let The Music Speak”, and more statements against the Cold War with the song “Soldiers”. The album also contained one last world-wide hit for ABBA in the shape of “One Of Us”, which again depicted the end of a love story. The Agnetha led ballad would give ABBA it’s final number one single in Europe and a top three hit in the United Kingdom.

Whilst The Visitors was considered to be an emotional and a bleak end for the band, it was not intended for the band to end following its release. In 1982, ABBA headed back into the studio to begin working on their ninth studio. It’s darkest and most foreboding song was still to come. During this period, six new songs were recorded by the group, and this included the beautifully haunting, and isolating “The Day Before You Came”.

On the surface of “The Day Before You Came”, the lyrics tell a simple story of a woman detailing her life the day before the arrival of her lover. However, a deeper look into its lyrics tell a slightly different story. The song really is about the wonder of falling in love, by flatly documenting how banal life was before love struck, accounting one ordinary woman’s mundane and predictable daily existence. There are so many interpretations of the lyrics and the song, because we don’t know who “You” is. The listener never really finds out. Is it her lover? Is the “You” in-fact the woman’s killer? This ambiguity makes the lyric even more chilling. The song really is driven along with an overwhelming sadness.

I really could go on for hours trying to decipher and unravel the lyrics to find its meaning, but we could be here for hours – I’ll leave that for another article. It’s true that it’s become a forgotten masterpiece, and one that music journalists will dissect for years to come. For me, the songs power lies in its layering of boredom and grandeur. The genuine sense of loss in Agnetha’s voice. Frida’s operatic backing vocals, and its moodily expressionist music video all accompanied by plaintive synths, which is unrivalled in pop. Rumour has it that the Agnetha recorded her vocals for the song in a dark studio, and when finished, hung up her headphones, and walked out. Signalling the end of ABBA.

ABBA’s final studio output, for me was certainly their best. Honest. Truthful. Reflective of the years it they were recorded, and lovingly created. Today, many people seem to remember ABBA for their happy up-tempo songs, joining them together with the colourful 70’s fashion. But for those of you that listen to The Visitors, you will find that behind all the kitsch, glitz and glamour, there is a more honest, raw and darker shade to much of their output – cementing itself as one of their finest albums of the 1980’s. The themes of the album are clear; Life us unstable, love and happiness may be fleeting – and your world can be turned upside down instantly and forever. Strong, and resonant ideas to end their career with. An excellent example of a band and record divided, foreshadowing their early eventual and untimely demise.

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