Whoa, there! Another ABBA compilation, you say? Surely that’s all been done. And for anyone really that interested, why not simply buy their remastered individual albums and have done with it? This collection is for those who love ABBA — enough to want more than the single-disc ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits provides, but not enough to need the four-disc box set.
For example, you get to hear some of ABBA’s pre-Eurovision song contest work, like “People Need Love” and “He is Your Brother”. These songs, while pop-oriented, have the commercial hippy feel and sound of songs like “Put Your Hand in the Hand” or “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”. In fact, I’m pretty sure, after listening to “People Need Love” that it was the main inspiration for the Starland Vocal Band. This material all appeared on ABBA’s first album Ring Ring, an album that wasn’t even released in the US until recently, when all of ABBA’s original recordings were remastered and released here. A lot of the material here shows that the songwriting team of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson hadn’t quite found their direction and voice yet, but they were already taking a great deal of time building arrangements and creating the mini-symphonies of pop in the studio that became one of the group’s hallmarks and the reason why many pop songwriters and musicians continue to look to them for inspiration.
In 1974, ABBA broke in the US on the strength of their world-conquering single “Waterloo”, an irresistible mix of glam-style boogie guitar and bass, jangly piano, R&B sax work, Phil Spector-inspired reverb, and whining female vocals. Though the Waterloo album still has many weak points, ABBA did manage to score another US hit from the album with the breathy Swede-babe vocals and string-accompanied “Honey Honey”, the only other track from Waterloo included here. 1975 saw the release of Abba, the first full-fledged ABBA album on which they appeared to know just where they were going. The album leads off with “Mamma Mia”, an incredibly infectious piece of ear candy, followed by tracks like “SOS” (considered by many the greatest pop song ever written, with a hook borrowed by many), “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do”, and “So Long”. If the group was, and always would be, primarily about hit singles, they were demonstrating that they could easily turn out enough of those to sustain interest across any entire LP. From here, ABBA continued to produce great singles, even though Benny and Bjorn were becoming more ambitious, too, as the closing group of songs from ABBA: The Album, entitled “The Girl with the Golden Hair (Three Scenes from a Mini Musical)” and including the wistful “Thank You for the Music”, demonstrates.
On the second disc of The Definitive Collection we hear the group move into the Eurodisco sound of their masterpiece album Voulez-Vous. The underlying sexual element, always there, moves to the fore along with a slight hint of Euro-decadence and a bit more darkness. This flip side to the sunny pop world was always present in ABBA’s best work (“Dancing Queen” conveys an air of sadness and a somewhat jaded sensibility), but tracks like “Summer Night City”, “Does Your Mother Know” and “Voulez-Vous” bring them to the fore for the first time. Things inside the group were turning darker and more complex as well, with Agnetha and Bjorn about to divorce even as Benny and Frida decided to marry after a nine-year engagement. Super Trouper, the band’s next album, featured an exquisite title track with classical piano and synthesizer flourishes, a pounding disco beat, and Agnetha’s sad vocal as she sings about her loneliness and feeling of alienation on the road. The group had matured significantly in the six years since “Waterloo”.
The somber The Visitors turned out to be the band’s swan song. Songs like “The Visitors” about a group of Soviet dissidents being visited by the KGB, “When All is Said and Done”, clearly about Benny and Frida’s split (which came happened soon after the release of Super Trouper), and “An Angel Passing Through My Room”, perhaps the band’s most melancholy tune ever, made it clear the group was never going to be the same.
This collection takes you through all of these albums and moods, masterfully moving from hippy-dippy pop happiness, through the Swedish hit factory years, into Eurodisco decadence, and on into the sadness of the realization that nothing, including ABBA, could last forever. Still, the question remains — why another ABBA compilation? What makes this group, now synonymous with the music, fashion, and events of the 1970s still a subject of incredible fascination and popularity? What made the musical Mamma Mia, based on ABBA’s songs, such a hot property recently?
There are, of course, a few elements that come to mind-the unique vocal pairing of Frida’s mezzo-soprano with Agnetha’s higher vocal range; the double-couples coming unhinged melodrama later revisited by Fleetwood Mac; the over-the-top arrangements that even today sound like state-of-the-art studio work; the weird, exotic, yet somehow off-key fashion statements that would help the group achieve popularity with retro-kitsch fans and the gay subculture. Then there’s the fact that many of ABBA’s fans are today approaching 50 and seem to remember the ’70s as a carefree and fun time: “You can dance / You can dance / Having the time of your life”. . . . Ultimately, though, the answer lies in the songs themselves, which deserve their place in the pop music pantheon beside names like Lennon/McCartney, Paul Simon, and Elton John. Despite sometimes-mawkish lyrics (which improved steadily as Benny and Bjorn became more fluent in English), the songs speak about universal experiences and feelings in a unique way, and the hooks stick in your head for decades after you first hear them. ABBA’s music speaks to a place that exists somewhere deep inside each of us, even if we don’t care to admit it. That’s probably about as good a definition of “pop music” as I can come up with. Now excuse me while I put on my platform shoes.