Super Trouper (Reissue)
, September 5th, 2011 11:43
What can possibly be said about a group that's probably sold a billion copies in the time it's taken you to read this first sentence? I mean, let's face it, they're one of the biggest pop groups of all time, up there with Elvis and The Beatles and whatnot, but with a significantly less obvious cool quotient - thanks largely to having spent decades as serial victims of the ironic dancer. At this point, I should probably mention for promotional purposes that Super Trouper is enjoying another reissue (is this the 65th?), remastered with a DVD and some bonus tracks ('Tropical Loveland' in a Birmingham accent, that sort of thing). I'm not sure ABBA require remastering - regardless of anything else, it's not like they weren't superhumanly adept at production techniques and textures. If you want a template for luscious, phat, ultra-textured soundscapes, you're going to turn to anything by Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid. And not White Light/White Heat.
But going back to the ironic dancer, people do love ABBA, don't they? In a this-goes-right-to-the-top scenario they're almost beyond the remit of your average music critic, accessible only to the likes of Gambuccini and... Well, that's probably it. If you were to profess a distaste for ABBA in the wrong environment it could potentially end in extreme violence (I'm not joking here, this has actually happened to me). Maybe of course it's simply not worth bothering: who needs an ABBA review anyway? You're probably thinking this right now, in fact. For me, though, this is personal in the most Proustian way. ABBA made me fall in love with the sound of music (literally, I mean, not the film). One note (ABBA songs are identifiable within a nanosecond) sends me spiralling back to childhood, offering me the total recall that no other scenario can. These four millionaire Eurovision winners are a vast and unassailable cultural juggernaut that equally have been responsible for the development of my lifelong obsession. What happens when you try and take a scalpel to such a thing?
Super Trouper was released in 1980, and was the penultimate album, coming prior to the monolithic, if still erratic, brilliance of 1981's The Visitors. The two albums are the only of the band's long-players to be spun from that truly bizarre emotional twilight zone where an artistic unit of two married couples was breaking apart (Bjorn and Agnetha divorcing in 1979, Benny and Anna-Frid in 1981). Like any ABBA album, there are unsurpassable moments of brilliance and crass moments of naffness that are entirely unique to themselves. There are moments when melodies so infinitely, incomprehensibly sublime are married to lyrics of such incredible stupidity that you end up questioning your own sanity - and then you realise its ABBA and it's a different world, you wouldn't understand and you get back to your value beans. There are a couple of songs that are just utter shite.
The opening title track actually refers to a brand of stage lighting, which immediately explains the guaranteed-to-alienate-99%-of-the-population lyrics: "Super Trouper / Lights are going to find me / Shining like the sun / Smiling having fun / Feeling like a number 1." Like, who cares – it's a struggle to even pay the fucking rent without having to listen to someone sing about how great it is to be stood onstage in the biggest room in the world. The thing is, the problem is, the goddamn tune. It's not their greatest (and this is the seriously frustrating aspect of Bjorn and Benny - I cannot and do not want to relate to this nonsense) but it just mainlines straight in to your heart or soul or whatever you want to call it. You're hooked, it's addictive, and quite frequently they just have a supernatural way with a melody. ABBA melodies always seem effortless - Bjorn and Benny seem to breathe chord progressions and arpeggios. Back to the lyrics though, and even here there are a few little spikes of weirdness – the vocodered, robotic vocals actually sound a little joy-starved, while lines like "Facing 20,00 of your friends / How can anyone be so lonely?" hint at some real darkness, a gravity of isolation.
'On And On And On', meanwhile, involves words like 'rockin', and has a sonic attitude equivalent to stumbling into Plastic People late on a Friday night only to find your dad stripped to the waist playing air sax to Burial. Cheesy doesn't come close. It's further accentuated by lyrics that attempt to 'deal' with ABBA's increasingly High Society-bound social network. Yeah, whatever. Again though, the chorus, with its mutated doo-wop backing vocals and vast electronic stabs, is easily the equal of anything you might love by ELO. ABBA and ELO are basically the same band in parallel universes, working a similar fusion of glam rock and disco, luscious production and lyrics that more than often leapfrog over the cliff edge of tolerable nonsense. Though Jeff Lynne is a much greater friend of embarrassing cheese than this quartet any day of the week.
'The Piper' inverts 'On And On And On's formula by building to a chorus that makes you want to punch a child. There is an episode of Frasier when Niles has been invited to a Basketball game, and asks Roz if "One still wears a sweater jauntily thrown around the shoulders for such an occasion". Roz replies, "Not if one wants to have the crap beaten out of oneself." Nile's idea of jauntiness is exactly how the chorus of 'The Piper' sounds, with a jiggery pipe, lyrics about following "a strange melody" (if only) and an overall air of jolliness that, frankly, is just hateful. Outside of this, though, there are some truly mesmerising wordless choral vocals, rolling acoustic guitar and smart bass that paint a nicely exotic landscape. Really though, this is 'Fernando's poor cousin. 'The Piper' also skirts close to that highly dubious thing ABBA sometimes do, coming close to what sounds like some kind of really dodgy national anthem. 'Andante, Andante', meanwhile, does one of those things that only musicians do, using terminology to evoke emotion ("I am your music and I am your song"), which when coupled with an unremarkable dirge has you reaching for a bucket and the forward button. ABBA always bloody go on about music, which always inspires cynical thoughts of doth-protest-too-much.
However, none of this matters one bit because within Super Trouper's 42 minutes are two of the finest songs of all time, nearly ten minutes of the most sublime earth-shattering music you will ever hear, two pieces of absolute, unequivocal art that will be around for centuries after whatever naff fad is rocking Zane Lowe this week.
Choosing to put perhaps the best and most devastating song ever written as the second track of an album is possibly an insane move, but it also nicely reflects both the unique place both this song and ABBA themselves hold in the eyes of the general public. 'The Winner Takes It All', as everyone and his dog knows, is a song about a break-up played out with stunning brutality. With lyrics written by Bjorn and sung by Agnetha, the song pulls off an especially cruel and complex coup where the victim (Agnetha) sings about her own perceived humiliating destruction and defeat at the hands of victor (Bjorn), through his words, as if they were her own. And what words: "I was in your arms / Thinking I belonged there / I figured it made sense / Building me a fence/ Building me a home / Thinking I'd be strong there / But I was a fool / Playing by the rules." Gentle acoustic guitars, spiraling piano melody, softly textured but hard drums and fluid bass; I swear that at one point Benny's piano is playing an inverted revision of 'Here Comes the Bride'. It's a liquefied, Spectoresque production, pulling off the impressive feat of being an emotional car crash of a song that you can (and do) dance to. Everyone in the western hemisphere knows this song, I think it was even voted best ABBA song in one of those hundred-greatest-things-that-fell-down-a-well show. But what's remarkable about it is that just for a moment, you suddenly can relate to life at the peak of the mountain. For a band so vastly out of reach to deliver such an emotionally true and profoundly affecting five minutes so late into an uncomprehendingly successful career is pretty damn remarkable. ABBA are brilliant when they get disco, that heartbreak of realising, right as dancefloor bliss begins to peak, that your high is already starting to fade.
'Lay All Your Love on Me', meanwhile, is the kind of song that'd have you crawl over broken glass just to shake your bony ass for even five seconds of its gothic dancefloor glory (which anticipates the shock of 'The Visitors'). Built on a synth riff so vast it could house a country, there's nothing like it in the world. ABBA's ability to evoke landscape is here rendered monumental, located where it should be and where it matters – on the dancefloor. But then the album ends with one of those ropey, overly triumphant moments that ABBA are so fond of, 'The Way Old Friends Do', the whole band vocally layered universe-wide with cheering audiences. It all sounds far too smug, a little weird and possibly fascistic. Like Laibach without the irony.
Super Trouper is not a perfect album, but then that's a meaningless statement anyway. ABBA are such a strange beast to critically evaluate. But even amidst the unobtainable reality of their lives and career, there's no denying that there are sublime moments here, where their gifts for melody and composition felt capable of taking over an entire planet. Which, of course, they did.