ABBA is the great musical love of my life.
Every single last one of their songs summon up some kind of powerful memory, including as a man in his ’50s a joyous/melancholic recalling of past memories, a theme that is common to many of the group’s epically-good songs.
One thing that always struck me was that the two main songwriters of the group, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, had a knack of pairing devastatingly beautiful music with deeply-personal, emotionally-resonant lyrics that got to the heart of life, imbued at least in these five songs with some geographic references which weren’t simply there to evoke a catchy sense of time and place but which were integral to the song’s DNA and what it was trying to say.
ABBA took me many places in my heart and mind, but in these five classic pieces of pop, they also transported me to actual places, which to a map nerd like myself, was the lyrical icing on the cake …
“Our Last Summer”
In common with many of their Scandinavian artistic compatriots, ABBA possess a transcendant ability to mix the beautiful with the melancholic, and never more so than in “Our Last Summer”, the recollection one gloriously romantic summer in Paris that even many years is as fresh as when it was happening. Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus make it all sound so perfect – stopping for a drink in each cafe, sitting on the grass by the Eiffel Tower, strolling down the Elysee – and yet it’s all tinged with that curious mix of pleasure and regret that accompanies all memories. Frida invests it with so much emotion and you can’t help but recall your own memories and wish that you could freeze life, just for a moment.
Graced at one time with the working title “Blinka Lilla Stjärna”, “Super Trouper”, the title track from ABBA’s penultimate studio album released in 1980, is all about the loneliness of being a singer on tour. Yes, you have the adulation of your fans and that means something, but when you’re far away from the love of your life in places like Glasgow, Scotland, and the audience is a sea of strangers, all you want is for them to be close by … and then you hear they will be and suddenly being away from home feels little less lonely. If ever you’ve felt away from your loved ones, then this is the soundtrack for those moments, offering hope that even distance can be tamed by the love of that someone special.
ABBA’s 1974 Eurovision-winning triumph is a gloriously-evocative, epic piece of pop that happily marries falling head over heels in love with a loose bit of historical retelling, specifically the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 at the hands of the British and Prussians near what is now Waterloo, Belgium. As lyrical undertakings go, “Waterloo” is both simple and deliciously complex, a giving in to the power of love that admits that when it hits you, you have no hope of escape, and honestly why would you want to? Thing is, falling in love is a damn sight more attractive than having your ambitions of untrammelled power and ambition ended so the two things aren’t really like. But honestly, this is pop so wonderfully good that I am happy to go along with it, right to the final echoes of “Waterloon by Frida and Agnetha.
“You Owe Me One”
The B-side to their official final single “Under Attack”, which was released in December 1982 to fans who didn’t appreciate that this was the end of ABBA, at least in their heyday period – of course they’re back and in a big way now thank you – “You Owe Me One” sounds all jaunty, bright and skitter-ish but is really all about the death throes of a relationship. So toxic have things become that getting right away from things, in this case to the Caribbean, is the only solution that seems to make sense – “Buy me a ticket, I’ll go to the Bahamas / I need a rest from our petty little dramas.” This speaks volumes about the fact that if you want to get geographically as far away as possible from the person you once couldn’t bear to be apart from, then the love died a long time ago.
One of ABBA’s great classic songs that ended up at #1 on the Australian charts for a record 14 weeks, “Fernando” was a highly-resonant non-album single that captured the memories of two old revolutionaries remembering what it has been like to fight in the Mexico-American War of the 1840s. It may not seem like the sort of natural content for a 1970s pop song by an emerging supergroup but it worked beautifully, summoning up, once again, lingering regret, pride, joy, sadness and the million other emotions that came into play when they crossed the Rio Grande. As songs about remembering the past go, this is one of the best out there and gets me every time.