Abba’s The Visitors with Hindsight: The Loveliest Heartbreak

The sleeve from Abba’s 1981 album The Visitors

Listening back to Abba’s The Visitors, with the distance of almost 35 years between its release and the present day, a new impression forms about an album that wasn’t especially well-received when it came out. The album is a goldmine of ideas and inspiration for anyone who wants to write songs.

The band was on its last legs when The Visitors was being recorded, held together only by contractual obligation. You can see this from the sleeve, which is the definition of “awkward”, featuring the four then-divorced (literally, from each other) members of Abba, sat with yards of personal space between each other. There’s an orange light to the room, with long shadows suggesting either a sunset or a dying fire. Abba, as Nordic a group as you’re ever likely to find, hardly ever looked jolly or welcoming on their album art, but this pushes coldness to its limit.

Returning to the album after a long while, it’s startling to hear the title track. Minor-chords screech into what sounds like the chime when Super Mario picks up a power-up bonus, and then the vocals, sparse, reverb-free and racked with distortion, come in. The Visitors’ opening track is apparently about the dread of being found by a totalitarian regime, and the song reeks of paranoia, right up to the chorus, “Now I hear them moving / Muffled noises coming through the door / I feel I’m / Crackin’ up.” On the surface, the song is a complete work of fiction, with no relation to the millionaires performing the lyrics — and yet there are powerful metaphors here of a loss of control, invasion of privacy, and a fear of the future.

It’s a bit jarring to go from The Visitors to Head Over Heels, a trad Abba workout with a synth backing that is inspired by tango, but may as well be played on an accordion, and the kind of 4/4 rhythm tale of misguided love that the group made its trademark for many years. It’s not very good. But perhaps it’s thrown into sharper relief by When All is Said and Done, one of the most tear-jerking expressions of vulnerability you will find on any pop album. Letting bygones be bygones has never been done in a more brutally-honest way. Soldiers, which follows, feels like a retread of The Name of the Game, and I Let the Music Speak is an indication of the direction in which Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson wanted to go, presaging their book for the musical Chess.

Not for the first time on this intense album, you’re glad to reach another of the peaks — One of Us having been added at the behest of a record label uneasy about the lack of hooks from the tracks they had heard. It’s one of Abba’s merriest melodies, and, coming at a similar time to Blondie’s The Tide is High, catches the trend for reggae rhythms on white pop, but it’s bittersweet, a cry for help, “sorry for herself, feeling stupid, feeling small,” the Rachmaninovian strings bringing support and succour. It’s the sort of pick-me-up track that a band deep in depression and close to outright collapse comes up with.

Two For the Price of One is a sarcastic story-song about planning a menage-a-trois, and has a dubious impact not unlike hearing Maxwell’s Silver Hammer in the middle of Let it Be. Abba knew better than anyone that an album of unremitting angst and tension is no good for anyone, and Slipping Through My Fingers, which acknowledges the advanced age of the group’s members in addressing a daughter growing up, deserves to be reclaimed from the memory of Meryl Streep attempting it in the Mamma Mia film. It’s carefully nuanced, happy the girl is maturing, but bewildered at the pace at which it is happening.

Like an Angel Passing Through My Room is a ghostly lullaby, the rhythm of a ticking clock behind it, lyrics like “sitting near the fireplace, dying embers warm my face,” taking us back to where we began, looking at that sleeve and wondering what the hell these four strangers were doing in the same room, but mentally elsewhere. We should be glad Abba recorded this album, though. For once, the remastered editions of an album enhance it rather than take away from its impact, adding The Day Before You Came, which, a little like a Henning Mankell police procedural novel, takes the listener through an ostensibly boring day, until “you” came. Who “you” is has been debated endlessly. Some believe it is about the finality of divorce papers being served, others believe it is about a murder. The minimal synths and the wailing backing vocals keep the grey clouds low over this track, which was Abba’s final single, a year after The Visitors.

Amazingly, when you hear The Day Before You Came with the benefit of hindsight, Abba intended to continue, even laying down I Am the City and Under Attack, added here after their initial appearance on the back end of More Abba Gold. We ought to be satisfied with The Visitors as a closing coda in Abba’s career as a band, though. As One of Us and When All is Said and Done indicate, they had nothing more to give, and left a work of melancholy and catharsis, but also of unimpeachable quality.

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