I’ll tell you a story about Abba. Far from the sunny, happy foursome that grinned from my Dad’s album covers, I actually thought they were a bit rude when I was a kid. The most played album of all was Greatest Hits Volume 2, which contained so many of those gleaming popjets d’art that define their incredible sound: ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Knowing me knowing you’, ‘Gimme gimme gimme’. It was a car staple, a constant loop. And every time we got to the final strains of ‘Chiquitita’ (a sort of bierkeller, clash-glasses, slap-knees schlager fadeout) I used to get a pit in my stomach. I knew that the next track was about to leave a trail of mess all over the speakers. Even now, I have an irrational hatred of ‘Summer Night City’. I don’t think many people would consider it a peak – though it went Top 5 in the UK, even Bjorn has admitted it’s ‘really lousy’ – but while its clog-heavy disco thud is a bit annoying, I’m not sure I could find anyone who actually blanches on hearing that first, clashing chord. It wasn’t the music that was the issue with me as a child anyway. No, it was the fact that Abba were singing about…coitus.
Well, that’s the last thing you want to have to encounter with your parents present, even if you’re sitting in the back of the car. You do everything to change the subject. Only you can’t when the tape is playing, and asking it to be fast forwarded is just giving it even more attention than it deserves. So my solution was to talk – to chatter incessantly – through the entire track. About anything that wasn’t coitus. Butterflies. Athletics. Stamp Collecting. Ah, I used to think, thank God ‘I Wonder’s round the corner. Bet you never thought you’d hear that. Of course, when I grew up, and the internet happened, and lyrics became searchable, I finally laid to rest the mystery of ‘Summer Night City’. The line is not ‘fucking in the moonlight’, but ‘walking in the moonlight’ (though you can see how I jumped to the wrong conclusion when it’s followed by ‘love-making in the park’). You still won’t find it on my playlist though.
Still, as a lover of Abba more generally (and who isn’t?), it’s their ambiguities that always intrigue me most. And by that I don’t mean the clichéd conjectures about wife-swapping that invariably dog lazy commentary on the group. It’s the music, stupid. Yes it’s big and shiny –still possibly the most brilliant studio production in the pop canon, in the true sense of that word – but the sheen is so frequently misleading. What I hear more than anything is unabashed longing. Listen to a few Abba songs back to back and you might be startled by the number of sighs and shrugs among the high-on-life harmonies. Abba are champagne pop. They bubble and fizz, and the giddy foam overruns the glass; but while the first few glasses are warm and tingly, there’ll be tears later and hangovers in the morning. At midnight, it’s ‘Dancing Queen’, shimmying onto the floor in a cascade of multi-tracked grand pianos, or ‘Take a chance on me’, flirty and determined; hungry eyes across the room. There’s even some superior early-hours chillout: an unexpectedly dramatic country-pop epic, ‘Eagle’ (Abba do Fleetwood Mac and beat them at their own game), and ‘The name of the game’, whose introduction is the sound of bedroom lights going off and stockings being shed (though judging by the video it could just as easily be the sound of someone dealing the cards for another round of rummy). All of these jewels come from Abba’s sales peak, the years 1976-78, when they had hit after hit all over the world (even America) and seemed the very paragon of pop; ambassadors for the lovingly crafted single, sometimes daft, sometimes even a bit weird, but seldom anything other than feel-good and endorphin-rich. Then the seventies turned into the eighties; leaves began to brown and roses fade. There was to be payback: Abba were to get sad. And my oh my, does any classic pop band do sad with so much…sadness?
To be fair, the melancholy had always been there, lurking in the speakers. Sweden’s all light in the summer, all sunny sparkle; but even that is tempered by the knowledge that winter is going to be sometimes crushingly dark (‘Summer Night City’, I grudgingly concede for the purpose of example, is a tribute to Stockholm’s 11pm sunsets and 3am sunrises, but it doesn’t sound remotely happy about it). One of Abba’s earliest hits, 1975’s ‘S.O.S.’, is a masterpiece of pop bipolarity, lurching from desperate verses to powerhouse choruses as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And in 1977, Abba spent five weeks at number one with ‘Knowing me knowing you’, a song so operatically sad-happy – thrilling major-key choruses and triumphant guitar solos picking through the spoils of separation – that they had to remake Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in the video (don’t you think Frida looks uncannily like Julianne Moore too?) But in 1980, the weather changed for good. Both couples were either divorced or about to be, and their songs became a sort of public talking cure. Even the more upbeat numbers on the Super Trouper album are wistful (the rather adult Rive Gaucherie of ‘Our Last Summer’) or downright neurotic (‘Lay all your love on me’ is one of the angriest disco records you’ll ever hear: banks of synthesizers like a stack of furrowed brows). ‘Super Trouper’ itself may have a fairground bounce in its step, but it’s really about fame fatigue; a sighting of Frida’s lover will ‘prove to [her] she’s still alive’ (check out its more radical cousin, ‘I’m a marionette’, a nightmare ode to stage fright). ‘Super Trouper’s verses also share their chord sequence with ‘The winner takes it all’, which is perhaps the greatest example of Abba chiaroscuro. A tour-de-force of extended metaphor in which marital discord is miraculously translated into major-key defiance, ‘Winner’ deploys a battery of sweeteners to help the medicine go down. That leap of a seventh in the main chorus melody, the sound of heartbreak trying to pull itself up by the bootstraps; the grand piano, octaving and trilling, keys smiling in the gloom; but then, oh then, the break in Agnetha’s voice as she comes to shake her adversary’s hand, the questions hovering hesitantly on her lips (‘Does it feel the same when she calls your name?) Kissed on the left cheek, slapped on the right; Abba don’t half put us through the mill.
But they saved the darkest till last. ‘The day before you came’ was released in late 1982, a year on from 1981’s sombre farewell album The Visitors. The Visitors is the critics’ favourite Abba, the album least dogged by misguided pastiches and bouts of whimsy. It updates the story of ‘Winner takes it all’s jilted wife in poignant pop-reggae (‘One of us’, their last ever top ten hit), muses on death to the ticking of a metronomic clock (‘Like an angel passing through my room’), and, believe it or not, even stages a Cold War psychodrama (‘The Visitors’ itself). But Abba’s leftfield turn into anxiety and paranoia wasn’t finished yet. ‘The day before you came’ really is a complete curveball. It bombed on original release; the Blancmange cover version actually sold more copies. But gradually, over time, it’s become a fan favourite, and a proper piece of pop mythology. I bet you didn’t know that it came in at number six in the NME’s ‘greatest pop songs of all time’ survey; that’s light years ahead of ‘Mamma Mia’ or ‘Fernando’.
Its sparseness is the first thing that strikes the ear. Where most of the great Abba arrangements are poster-paint, Spector-esque affairs, ‘The day before you came’ is a black outline with a few tints to highlight it; if The Human League had proclaimed themselves ‘the electronic Abba’ over the previous year, then the four-piece were responding in kind with their own unique take on minimalist synth-pop. As Agnetha sings her first lines, we immediately realise that she is going to tell us a story: ‘I must have left the house at eight, because I always do / My train, I’m certain, left the station just when it was due’. OK, so this is a day in the life: Paul McCartney woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across his head; Agnetha woke up, read the paper, and made her desk ‘around a quarter after nine’. Except she keeps having to reassure us that she’s remembering it all correctly, that the details tally. ‘I must…’, ‘I’m certain’, ‘no doubt’, ‘I’m pretty sure’: virtually every line is appended by such qualifications. By the time the first verse is over, I’m pretty sure I’m listening to a witness statement. Or else a woman who has just awoken from a coma and can’t quite recall the run-up.
The dolorous minor-key music doesn’t help here (or in fact, it does; it helps layer the song with creeping dread, even fear). Vaporous backing vocals swirl in and out of the mix like fog around a streetlamp, sometimes flashing a glimmer, elsewhere retreating into the dark. Baroque keyboard lines shimmy around the root chord, emphasising its determination not to waver from the minor. Agnetha goes on enumerating the most banal details, all still in that mysterious past tense (‘I must have lit my seventh cigarette at half past two’) but begins to offer some clue as to her motives (‘And at the time I never even noticed I was blue’). It’s at the moment that she sings ‘Without really knowing anything I hid a part of me away’ that you begin to think the ‘you’ in the title must (‘must’!) almost certainly be a lover, someone who has saved her from meals for one and solitary cups of coffee in the works canteen. If a lover, then why so on the brink of despair? Why does it sound like she can barely keep it together? They have split up, clearly, and she’s trying to think of how she functioned before they met in the first place. Yes, that’s what it must be. She’s remembering how life was back then in order to regain her life in the here and now. ‘Before’, she was somnambulating through her schedule; now, she finds herself doing the same. The day before is the same as the day after. And the day after that. The backing track moves on, metronomically, never relenting; almost funereal.
And there’s the rub. You see, there are many people who think this song is actually not about a relationship at all, but about death. There are all sorts of fanciful theories out there (the internet is awash with pop conspiracists). Some take the line that the lover has died, and she is actually coping with grief. Others think that she has been murdered and is singing from beyond the grave. Indeed, it does feel like she is almost stalking or haunting herself, tracking the movements of the person she once was. If you subscribe to this view (creepy when you think that Agnetha herself did have a real life stalker at one point), the last verse becomes almost unbearably spooky, as the heroine makes her way home, ‘stop[ping] along the way to buy some Chinese food to go’, then sits alone watching Dallas (stabs of staccato synth suggesting there’s a shadow rising behind her) before retiring to her bed to read a bit of Marilyn French (Why on earth would she be reading French? This Hitchcock blonde is a feminist into the bargain…) The last thing she hears, and indeed that we hear from her, is the rattling of rain on the roof, before the ghostly backing vox (sounding more and more like a horror-movie theremin with each refrain) and diminished chords furrow, flicker and fade gradually into silence. Definitely plausible.
But what do I hear? Well, for me, this is a song about very adult things, but not the things you think. No, this is a song about disappointment. Agnetha has had a brief affair, maybe even a one-night stand; the video certainly makes it plain that sex has taken place, but that for whatever reason the relationship simply cannot continue. This may have been the defining thing in her life. She may never get another chance. That instrument used to such devastating effect in ‘The winner takes it all’ – the break in the voice that lets you know that tears are welling within – is crushingly sad, as are all those candid details about needing a lot of sleep and liking to be in bed by ten. You just want to give her a big hug. But in a grown-up world where work-life balance is skewed in favour of the former, and the only mates she seems to have are the ‘usual bunch’ she meets for lunch, it just may not be possible for her life to get any better or brighter. Gosh, Ibsen couldn’t really have done it any better. As for the song-video combination on this one, forget Bergman. If the song is about meeting your maker, well, this one could play The Seventh Seal at chess on a beach and win hands down.
And ultimately the song is also about Abba themselves. ‘Turning out the light, I must have yawned and cuddled up for yet another night’, cries Agnetha at the end. And this was indeed what happened, as legend would have it; the last thing they ever recorded, Agnetha putting her headphones down and walking out of the darkened studio into the daylight, never to return. It’s a bit fanciful; they did of course do promotion for the song on television, and it wasn’t even the last single to be released – that honour went to the chirpier ‘Under Attack’. But I do wonder whether this song’s musing on mundanity is a projection, even a prediction. Post-Abba, life may be all custom calls and in-trays, railway timetables and TV schedules. It will certainly be private, even reclusive (much has been made of the visible copy of Garbo’s biography in the ‘One of us’ video, as if Agnetha had planted it to indicate her growing preference for anonymity; ‘The day before you came’ added to the growing mystique). Whatever the case, life post-Abba would be miserable. As indeed I imagine it was.
See, Abba’s ambiguities go on and on. This is the longest of my blog posts by far, trapped as I am in the Abba labyrinth. If only I’d known this song back in the days when ‘Summer Night City’ blared out of my Dad’s Volvo speakers. I could have talked incessantly as ever over the rude bits, and only got round to my interpretation of the first verse of Agnetha’s sorrowful Schwanengesang. There is always more to spare. There’s always another listen. Undoubtedly you’ll always want to hear this song again: The day before you came.