Review Summary: The sound of losing everything.
One only needs to take a look at the cover of ABBA’s final studio release, The Visitors
, to figure out why it would be their last. By 1981, the two men and two women who comprised ABBA had been together for almost a decade – releasing a new studio album nearly every calendar year, and to prove my point, the artwork of these releases can be succinctly described as follows: a group hug, hanging out together with Napoleon in his castle, drinking champagne together in a limo, sitting in a helicopter together, standing side by side in front of a blue pyramid, and, on 1980’s Super Trouper
, performing together in the middle of a crowd of circus performers. But, on The Visitors
, there is no sense of togetherness for a good reason, as both of the previously happy couples that comprised the group had, for better or worse, split apart, and remained together on only professional terms. It is true - you can say that the two separated couples are in the same room, but their surroundings speak volumes about their collective state of mind. Their shadows are conspicuously separated, surrounded on all sides by the dark red light emitting from the small lamp, all four avoid eye contact with the camera and more importantly, each other by staring off into space. They are together, but in the loosest sense of the word. One thing is certain: the artwork of The Visitors
presents a stark contrast to the light-hearted, smiling faces that graced the covers of their previous works.
In this case, you can throw away the old adage of “never judging a book by its cover,” because the album sleeve presented to us on the front of The Visitors
can be directly compared to the sound of the music that lies inside. Turning away from the upbeat, bright disco pop of their previous releases, songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus instead favor slower, sparser arrangements on the majority of The Visitors
, leaving more room for each instrument to breathe, all the while still showing off their mastery of pop melodies and progressions. The songs on here are more difficult to dig into – simply put, there are no true “sing-‘em-out-loud” choruses like on “Dancing Queen” or “Take A Chance On Me,” or “Does Your Mother Know"”, although, there are a great deal of both instrumental and vocal hooks throughout this entire album.
Take for example the opening title track, which opens with heavy vocal distortion, a roundabout xylophone line, and prevalent synthesizer tracks which could be described as exacting, but more accurately, cold, all placed alongside lyrics which take no shame in describing the process of being left alone (in this case, the narrator would appear to be abducted by aliens). Feelings of loneliness, solitude and abandonment continue on the next track, “Head Over Heels,” which presents itself as a menace all its own through its wonderfully melodic chorus that is pounded into the listener’s head by the perfect vocal performances of Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog. Continuing this trend, there are songs that dig even deeper into the groups interpersonal issues, such as in “When All Is Said and Done,” whose telling lyrics read “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.” The off-kilter single “Under Attack” follows up on these same themes: “Won’t somebody please have a heart/come and rescue me now cause I’m falling apart.” Even the most “classic” ABBA song in terms of mainstream accessibility, “One of Us,” once again contains dark lyrical overtones in its chorus: “One of us is lonely/one of us is only/waiting for a call/Sorry for herself, feeling stupid feeling small/wishing she had never left at all.” The fact that all of these lyrics were written one-hundred percent by the two men of the group, but then sung and performed by the two women could be considered to be a devious and almost insulting move, but the tone of the songs speaks for themselves. Despite the airy nature of the instrumentation, the disco party is over. There are no more helicopters or limos to travel in. The tuxedos and ballroom gowns have been torn to pieces. The fairytale of the perfect romance is dead. The hangover of love has begun, there is no hope at stopping it now, and regret looms large over us all.
Throughout their career, ABBA created dozens of great pop singles that were fortunate enough to be worldwide hits (collected most cohesively on ABBA: Gold
), but they never made as personal, as great, or as cohesive an album as their final effort, The Visitors
. Without hiding any of their scars, the group weaves haunting tales that center on losing everything you ever cared about, about trying to move on while simultaneously looking back and pondering what may have been if a few things had gone differently. It may be a pop album at its absolute core, but The Visitors
certainly is not something to blast through speakers at your next hootenanny. Instead, it is a genuine piece of art; the compositions, despite their abundant hooks, take time to unravel and comprehend, making this an album that is definitely and unabashedly worth taking the time to listen to.
“Sleep in our eyes, her and me at the breakfast table
Barely awake I let precious time go by
Then when she's gone, there's that odd melancholy feeling
And a sense of guilt I can't deny
What happened to the wonderful adventures
The places I had planned for us to go
Well, some of that we did, but most we didn't
And why, I just don't know”