Image: The ABBA members on Dutch television show TopPop, 1974. Via Wikimedia Commons.
As this article is published, the Swedish group ABBA is taking “virtual” residency at a custom-built, 3,000-capacity venue called the ABBA Arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Their multitudes of fans will see “ABBA-tars,” as avatars of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad perform alongside a live 10-piece band. The event is linked to their album Voyage, which came out last fall.
In the context of this renewed international focus on the four, I decided that the time has come for me to acknowledge that I have long been a devoted ABBA fan. In this essay I provide excerpts from songs that I consider to be among the most important ones recorded in ABBA’s earlier incarnation, in the 1970s and early 1980s. Then I turn to Voyage and what the new songs add to those they wrote in the decade they performed together, when they – and we ABBA fans – were a lot younger. The excerpts, I contend, illustrate that not only the tunes but also many of the lyrics stand the test of time.
It is hard to believe that songs performed and recorded between 1972 and 1982 remain so popular today. Why is it that ABBA’s music is alive when that of other popular groups is forgotten? In my view, it endures because it is different from that of other successful “rock” groups – indeed, it is better compared to the music of great composers and lyricists of the past that is still cherished today.
Readers familiar with my writing, while probably surprised by my straying so far from political science, will see in this effort a reflection of my interest in things Swedish. The ABBA four remained Swedish, not tempted to move to New York, London or Hollywood – despite their commercial success not going down all that well in egalitarian Sweden. Yet, while their Swedish temperament is reflected in many of the themes of their songs, there is nothing in the specific content – no Swedish place names or expressions, let alone Swedish words – to link their music with the land of its creators.
From the start Björn and Benny chose to write songs in the international language, English, taking the risk of getting expressions wrong. They sought to make their listeners, wherever and whoever they were, feel that the words spoke for them. And they succeeded well above their own expectations.
I can think of only one example of their mistakenly assuming that Swedish experience reflected that of their listeners, one especially salient to me given my work on comparative civic literacy. In the last song they recorded together in their original incarnation, “The Day Before You Came” (1982), about how a lover’s imminent arrival brings a change to Agnetha’s mundane life, the references are all to popular (American) culture:
I must have left my house at eight, because I always do
My train, I’m certain, left the station just when it was due
I must have gone to lunch at half past twelve or so …
The usual place, the usual bunch
At five I must have left, there’s no exception to the rule
A matter of routine, I’ve done it ever since I finished school …
I’m sure I had my dinner watching something on TV
There’s not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn’t see
But one reference is jarring:
I must have read the morning paper going into town
And having gotten through the editorial, no doubt I must have frowned …
The train back home again
Undoubtedly I must have read the evening paper then
For someone living in Sweden during that period as I did, it was evident that their assumption that everyone read newspapers – editorials no less – was accurate as far as Scandinavia was concerned. But it was hardly universal – and certainly not for the land that produced Dallas.
The Deceptive Image of Superficiality
It is understandable that when they burst on the scene, ABBA’s music was dismissed by almost everyone – except their fans. What came through, apart from the rather silly costumes, was the prosaic lyrics that carried the catchy tunes. Moreover, their sudden success met with some resentment among rock music gatekeepers, who dismissed it as superficial, commercial and clichéd. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau once wrote of ABBA, “We have met the enemy and they are them.”
And the image of superficiality remained, even though anyone listening carefully would have realized that ABBA’s songs increasingly contained profound lyrics that complemented highly complex musical arrangements. The respected musician Pete Townshend of The Who was ahead of his time when he shocked the world in 1982 by coming out in Rolling Stone as an ABBA fan. He noted that “ABBA was one of the first big international bands to actually deal with middle-aged problems in their song writing.”
I suspect that the rare beauty of the voices of the two women singers – combined with Agnetha’s haunting appearance – also may have further distracted listeners from paying attention to the complexity of the lyrics and the music. It was thus natural just to get swept up with the beat and the melody.
My initial involvement with ABBA began in Stockholm in organized aerobics (gympa) in public parks in 1985, moving in step with the beat that, for many of the songs, worked perfectly with the rhythmic exercises. Indeed, though I cannot swear to it, if memory serves ABBA music was also used in the less sophisticated aerobics classes in my neighbourhood gym in Montreal in the 1970s and early 1980s, well before I went to Sweden. Humming along with the very catchy tunes and even mouthing the words, one paid little attention to their meaning.
Returning to Sweden in the 1990s (I was teaching in Umea in the north), I found myself starting to pay more attention to the words of the ABBA songs during gympa sessions. But it was only more recently, especially as I exercised on a stationary bicycle, that I started to listen intently to the lyrics, and to the themes that kept on recurring, discovering unexpected complexity and depth.
I couldn’t miss cases of ABBA’s misuse of English words that the critics had seized upon. The most glaring is in one of their lesser earlier songs, “Does Your Mother Know,” in which the lyrics go “You can dance with me, honey, if you think it’s funny,” mixing up “funny” with “fun.” Another such error, the misuse of the definite article, an error I encountered regularly among Swedes, comes in an especially poignant song for someone of my generation. “Our Last Summer” from 1980 was apparently based on Björn Ulvaeus’s memory of a teenage romance in Paris:
Walks along the Seine
Laughing in the rain
I was so happy we had met
It was the age of no regret
Those crazy years, that was the time
Of the flower-power
My guess is that these few errors were pounced on by critics who resented their “undeserved” (sic) success. This was especially the case in their native Sweden where some were not happy with the image of Sweden they presented to the world. In 1982, for example, Professor Gluck and his associates at the Stockholm College of Music attacked the popular tabloid Expressen for “outrageously” awarding the annual prize “to a group that makes a fortune by manipulating our prosperous teenagers those who seriously aim at making music a meaningful art form.”
I do not accept that great music, or other great art, cannot be popular. I would rank Andersson and Ulveaus with the composers of the great operas. On Amazon’s list of the 40 greatest arias, Puccini leads with 11, followed by Verdi and Bizet with four each and Mozart with three. In an endnote, I offer a list of memorable songs from the great days of Broadway musicals and Hollywood films. By my admittedly subjective reckoning, at least 15 of ABBA’s earlier songs and at least one from Voyage would qualify to be on the list.¹
Below I offer excerpts from them. I exclude several of ABBA’s early and still very popular songs in which their then-manager Stig Anderson contributed to the lyrics: “Ring Ring,” “Honey, Honey”, “I Do, I Do, I Do”, “Mamma Mia” and “SOS.” Their most successful, “Dancing Queen” – the only ABBA song to top the charts in the United States – owes much to its appeal to the Gay and Lesbian community.
In all, they recorded 117 songs, of which 25 made it to the top 40 in the U.K. – an extraordinary accomplishment for a group that was together from 1972 to 1982 and broke through only in 1974 when their song “Waterloo” won the Eurovision Song Contest. (It was to take advantage of this exposure that Stig Anderson moved to concentrating on promoting the group, leaving the words and music to Björn and Benny.)
The more I listened to the words, the more I came to appreciate the tinge of sadness and gloom that reflected the lived experience of these two dazzling couples that seemed to have everything. Quite soon the lyrics and the weightier beats begin to reflect the unravelling of both domestic unions.
As Barry Walters suggested, based on an interview with Benny Andersson on U.S. National Public Radio in May 2015, it is here that the effect of growing up in Sweden can be felt:
What Andersson did point out was that his group possessed a rarely acknowledged capacity for the sorrows of artists living within the “melancholy belt” above the 59th latitude, where the sun virtually disappears for two months, and snow falls for nearly half a year. He argued that this despondency runs through Swedish folk, Russian folk, classical composers like Finland’s Jean Sibelius and Norway’s Edvard Grieg, Ingmar Bergman movies, the voice of Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo and, sometimes, the harmonies of Lyngstad and her front-line vocal partner Agnetha Fältskog.
When it comes to pop, ABBA have been for the last several decades far more influential than The Beatles, rule easy listening radio with nuanced, nearly subversive stuff because they seemed so quaint on the surface … These unashamedly heterosexual couples appeal to the LGBTQ community because Gay people particularly respect entertainers who cloak suffering behind carefully constructed artifice because it’s a skill most of us are still forced to learn. ABBA concealed the distress of their ditties with as many deliciously gaudy overdubs. Embedded in some of the brightest whiteness pop has ever known, ABBA invented their own blues, one that hasn’t left the radio. They whispered private anguish in the midst of the party.
Though ABBA stopped recording, Björn and Benny did not stop producing music. There were 13 ABBA albums released by the time of the breakup in 1982, of which four were compilations. This does not include special compilations then and afterward for Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and Australia, and two albums in Spanish, as well as CDs and video albums recorded in the later years. Several of the most successful compilations came after 1992, when ABBA Gold was released. It reached the top of the charts everywhere outside North America, selling more than the previous chart-topper album, Arrival in 1976.
Mixing Bitter and Sweet
I cannot articulate in writing what only listening to the songs makes clear: how complex the harmony is, mixing bitter and sweet, and how the melodies merge with the powerful lyrics. Listening makes plain that the harmony was attainable because of the wide range of the voices of Fältskog, a soprano, and Lyngstad, a mezzo-soprano. Somehow their voices become aligned to create something larger than the sum of their parts, capturing the depth and power of Benny Andersson’s music.
I highlight some of the most representative of Ulvaeus’s lyrics, which speak for themselves in giving expression to the themes noted here. Readers can easily find the full lyrics as well as the sounds themselves on YouTube and elsewhere on the web. In ordering the songs, I identify certain themes and follow then as the treatment goes from lighter to darker. Only by listening can one appreciate the coming together of words and music in the emerging themes.
Even in their early, more superficial, period they drew on historical metaphors, stating with “Waterloo”:
I was defeated, you won the war
Promise to love you forever more
Couldn’t escape if I wanted to
Knowing my fate is to be with you
Finally facing my Waterloo
And in 1976 came their fine ballad “Fernando,” about two freedom fighters recalling the Mexican revolution of 1910. In 1980 “The Piper,” based on the Pied Piper of Hamelin, constituted a move away from the mainstream, with its dark lyrics belied by the apparently happy melody and use of medieval-sounding flute and drums. The next year brought “Cassandra,” about the tragic historical figure from Greek mythology who was not believed as she foretold the fall of Troy:
Down in the street they’re all singing and shouting
Staying alive though the city is dead
Hiding their shame behind hollow laughter
While you are crying alone on your bed
Another recurring theme is bittersweet nostalgia, of which a well-known instance is “Slipping through My Fingers” (1981), about a mother’s missed opportunities to spend time with her daughter before it was too late, sung by Meryl Streep in the 1994 film Mamma Mia. The theme comes through especially in “Our Last Summer” (1980), in which the lines quoted above recalling Ulvaeus’s teenage romance in Paris are followed by:
But underneath we had a fear of flying
Of getting old, a fear of slowly dying…
And now you’re working in a bank
The family man, the football fan
And your name is Harry
How dull it seems
Yet you’re the hero of my dreams
It seems that almost all the songs touch on the precariousness of relationships. The theme of separation first emerges in 1974 with “Hasta Mañana,” one of the dozen or so songs ABBA also recorded in Spanish.
Hasta mañana ‘til we meet again
Don’t know where, don’t know when
Darling, our love was much too strong to die
We’ll find a way to face a new tomorrow
Hasta mañana, say we’ll meet again
I can’t do without you
It emerges again a year later in the highly successful “S.O.S.” with its memorable chorus:
Where are those happy days?
They seem so hard to find
I try to reach for you
But you have closed your mind
Whatever happened to our love?
I wish I understood
It used to be so nice
It used to be so good
So when you’re near me
Darling, can’t you hear me, S.O.S.
The love you gave me
Nothing else can save me, S.O.S.
When you’re gone
How can I even try to go on?
The precariousness of relationships is the theme of “The Name of the Game” (1977), in which a young, vulnerable person struggles with unfamiliar feelings:
If I trust in you
Would you let me down?
Would you laugh at me
If I said I care for you?
Could you feel the same way too?
A more positive approach to the theme is found in “Take A Chance on Me” (1978), another song that the film Mamma Mia had everyone singing. The bittersweet treatment returns with “Chiquitita,” in which the singer is trying to help a friend through heartbreak; then, with “Lay All Your Love on Me” two years later, other women are perceived as a potential threat.
But the emerging dominant theme was the unravelling of relationships. In 1976 came the poignant “My Love, My Life”:
I’ve watched you look away
Tell me is it really so hard to say? …
Sitting here close to you
Knowing that maybe tonight we’re through
And then in 1977 came “Knowing Me, Knowing You”:
In these old familiar rooms, children would play
Now there’s only emptiness, nothing to say
No more carefree laughter
Silence ever after
Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes
Here is where the story ends, this is goodbye
Knowing me, knowing you
There is nothing we can do
We just have to face it,
This time we’re through
Then comes nostalgia with a hint of bitterness. “One of Us” (1981), recorded after both ABBA’s couples had separated, is a tale of loneliness and empty beds with Agnetha “wishing she had never left at all,” while “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme (a Man after Midnight)” (1979) is sung by the now divorced Agnetha, as is the evocative “The Winner Takes It All” (1980):
I was in your arms
Thinking I belonged there
I figured it made sense
Building me a fence
Building me a home
Thinking I’d be strong there
But I was a fool
Playing by the rules
As their career is coming to an end in 1981, they try to accept their fate with equanimity in “When All Is Said and Done”:
Here’s to us one more toast and then we’ll pay the bill
Deep inside both of us can feel the autumn chill…
When the summer’s over and the dark clouds hide the sun
Neither you nor I’m to blame when all is said and done.
From this perspective, it was only fitting that in 1983, after they had announced their breakup, “Thank You for the Music” came out. The light tone in which they rhetorically ask “Without a song or a dance what are we?” belies the unstated and disheartening answer: nothing.
The 2021 Comeback
The various rerecordings of these songs kept people listening, but no one could have imagined their comeback so many years later to record new songs, released in a new album, Voyage, in the fall of 2021. The reception from the critics was divided, though their return was hardly unnoticed. The Guardian even published two reviews, one negative, one mixed,
As Björn put it in an interview, these songs are the expression of 40 years of experience: several are definitely worth the wait. Agnetha and Anni-Frid still sing beautifully, even if the range of notes they can reach is smaller. All the melodies are catchy. One of the songs, “Don’t Shut Me Down,” in which highly memorable music is combined with very powerful lyrics, clearly belongs in ABBA’s top 20:
A while ago, I heard the sound of children’s laughter
Now it’s quiet, so I guess they left the park
This wooden bench is getting harder by the hour
The sun is going down, it’s getting dark
I realize I’m cold, the rain begins to pour
As I watch the windows on the second floor
The lights are on, it’s time to go
It’s time at last to let him know
I believe it would be fair to say, “You look bewildered”
And you wonder why I’m here today
And so you should, I would
When I left, I felt I’ve had enough
But in the shape and form, I appear now
I have learned to cope, and love and hope is why I am here now
Then comes the strong chorus, though the words are admittedly a bit offputting:
And now you see another me, I’ve been reloaded, yeah
I’m fired up, don’t shut me down
I’m like a dream within a dream that’s been decoded
I’m not the one you knew, I’m now and then combined
And I’m asking you to have an open mind
The Guardian’s initial review by Jude Rogers, “No Thank You for the Music,” has kind things to say only about this song, as well the album’s other headline song “I Still Have Faith in You.”
In my view, there are several additional interesting songs in the album. While not in the top category because the music does not quite make the grade, these songs feature lyrics that are as good as anything ABBA have ever written. I am thinking of “I Could Be That Woman,” in which a woman and her beloved dog watch her estranged lover wake up, and they argue as she admits “Oh God, I’m sorry for the wasted years,” with a glimmer of hope at the end:
You’re not the man you should have been
I let you down somehow
I’m not the woman I could have been
But I can be that woman now
Another is “Keep an Eye on Dan” in which a divorced mother has left her son with his dad for the weekend:
My little boy looks so happy
He throws me his “go mummy” kiss
And he loves his dad
And I loved him too
Maybe I still do
But it’s over
Certain that I’m out of sight
I pull over and turn off the car
And I bang the wheel
I can’t believe that I’ve actually
Held it together this far
In Rolling Stone last November 4, Rob Sheffield concluded that “the first new ABBA album in 40 years was worth the wait … It’s a surprise to have these Swedes back in the game. But it’s a bigger, sweeter surprise that they returned so full of musical vitality.”
In “I Still Have Faith in You,” Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid sing, “How inconceivable it is that we have reached this far.” Perhaps more then they realize, they are speaking for all of us.