The Visitors, ABBA’s 8th and final studio album, is the group’s ‘Abbey Road’.
Much like The Beatles during 1969, the four middle-aged members of ABBA were barely speaking to each other in 1981. Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad had divorced and Bjorn Ulvaeus had remarried after divorcing Agnetha Faltskog in 1979.
Inevitably, an icy professionalism reflecting the chilly atmosphere of the recording studio pervades The Visitors. Unlike on prior albums, Agnetha and Frida don’t even sing together in the verses on any of the nine songs. The Visitors sounds colder too, as it was mostly digitally recorded (and then became one of pop music’s first ever CDs).
The title track is a joyless, Joy-Division-goes-pop album opener with eerie synths, Frida’s hardened vocals and a sinister chorus. It manages to be incredibly catchy for a song about dissidents behind the Iron Curtain waiting to be taken away by ‘the visitors’, with bleak lines such as ‘the sound so ominously tearing through the silence’, ‘come to break me’ and ‘crackin’ up’.
The quirky Head Over Heels (which broke ABBA’s 7-year streak of 18 UK Top Ten hits) and Two for the Price of One appear silly and shallow on the surface, but have an undercurrent of sarcasm and irony.
When All is Said and Done (the US lead single), inspired by Benny and Frida’s divorce, is considered a lost hit single and is another hidden highlight in the ABBA catalogue. With Frida’s uplifting vocals instilling hope to the lyrics about the aftermath of a breakup, an adult-oriented sound and a mature music video that got airplay in the early days of MTV, it outperformed ABBA’s bubblegum hits like Mamma Mia by reaching the US Billboard Top 30.
The lead single elsewhere in the world was One of Us (UK #3), which is the closest track to the classic ABBA sound with its rich vocal harmonies. However, its tone is downbeat as Agnetha returns to her role (from songs like SOS and The Winner Takes It All) of a woman recovering from heartbreak.
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Soldiers trudges along like a ghostly marching band, with its chilling drum arrangement. Bjorn and Benny leap into musical territory with the temperamental I Let The Music Speak, with spectacular vocal performances from the girls.
The autobiographical Slipping Through My Fingers (about Agnetha, Bjorn and their daughter) is a poignant account of a mother’s regrets of taking her young daughter for granted. It has since become a highlight in ‘Mamma Mia! – The Musical’ and its film adaptation, both of which explore the relationship between mother and daughter.
This track segues into the bare but breathtakingly beautiful Like an Angel Passing Through My Room (which Madonna covered long before Hung Up). Benny’s melodies have rarely sounded more majestic, and Bjorn’s lyrics have rarely been so matter-of-fact yet poetic.
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The stripped-back arrangement of Benny’s heavenly keyboards, Frida’s subdued vocals and a ticking clock is fitting for a song about sitting alone in the dark with one’s thoughts. The clock then stops ticking, ending the album as abruptly as Her Majesty ended Abbey Road. Time was clearly up for ABBA (though their last recording came in August 1982 with The Day Before You Came).
The Visitors is generally forgotten amongst casual ABBA fans as it is depressing and doesn’t have an obvious classic hit single. However, it is THE go-to ABBA studio album as it is an early 1980s pop masterpiece. It is a revelation for detractors who usually find ABBA too chirpy, camp and cheesy to stomach. The Visitors is a dignified swansong for a group that could no longer maintain the facade of a united front; see the morose album cover.