ABBA - The Visitors - Review
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critics' view

ABBA's music on The Visitors is more pristine and ambitious than it had ever been, its themes darker, its personal politics more tangled. Both of the band's couples had divorced, but the men were still writing lyrics for the women to sing— meaning it's easy to see a cruel edge in tracks like "One of Us", in which a woman regrets her new independence over a typically gorgeous melody. All of this has made The Visitors a perennial critic's favorite. It's the record on which the wintry melancholy of "late ABBA"— whose sadness had bubbled under their music almost from the start— could finally dominate.

But things are never quite so simple. The original nine tracks that make up The Visitors are no less uneven than any ABBA full-length; in fact, the weakest songs are a snapshot of their foibles as a group. They had a long dalliance with musical theatre— the pomp-pop fantasia "I Let the Music Speak" is their last and most bloated attempt. "Two for the Price of One"— a hokey story of a failed threesome— calls back to their earliest, goofiest records. "Slipping Through My Fingers", about the impotence of watching your kids grow up, is a great example of how the group had come to pitch records at adults, but in execution it's pure schmaltz.

The highs, though, are astonishing. The title track is a snapshot of life in a totalitarian state, full of justified paranoia and exhausted fatalism: "I hear the doorbell ring" it begins matter-of-factly "and suddenly the panic takes me." The music lurches between seasick synth-pop and nervous disco flourishes, with Frida Lyngstad's raga-infuenced vocals rolling uneasily on top. It's five years and a musical lifetime since this band sung "Dum Dum Diddle", but for all its distance from ABBA's traditional sound, "The Visitors" never gives up on catchiness. This is grown-up, risk-taking pop, but always pop nonetheless.

The same goes for the record's other strong songs— the ghostly "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room", the cryptic "Soldiers", the wise and sympathetic "When All Is Said and Done". Aurally, too, the group was never better: The Visitors is deliciously crisp, layered, and rewarding where a lot of contemporary synth-pop now sounds rather thin. Some of the band's latter-day weaknesses have been ironed out— their rather awkward relationship with disco, for instance. Their "disco LP," Voulez-Vous, was marked by a noticeable stiffness: By the time of The Visitors ABBA hadn't got any funkier, but they had learned to use their unyielding rhythms creatively, turning their dance-pop into something intriguingly angular and staccato on "I Am the City" and "You Owe Me One".

The Visitors ends with career highlight "The Day Before You Came", Agnetha singing a woman's hesitant reconstruction of the day before she met someone we assume is her lover. The details are banal, but Agnetha makes them live anyway, and they're contrasted by keening backing vocals of such dread that it's been speculated the song's "You" is killer, not partner.

The Day Before You Came is, on paper, a happier song than "The Visitors", but it shares its themes with much of the album: Life is unstable, happiness may be fleeting, and your world can be instantly and forever overturned. These are strong, resonant ideas to end a career on, and this is an excellent way to finish— a band and a record divided between almost throwaway studio mastery and spectral, uneasy premonitions of their own demise.

Tom Ewing
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