Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is 'The Visitors' by Abba.
Everyone knows Abba. From number one hits and best-selling albums to musicals and films, the Swedish foursome are still ubiquitous four decades after their heyday, rightly earning them a place in the pantheon of pop music.
But there’s much more to Abba than the familiar refrains of Mamma Mia, and never is that more evident than on the group’s eighth and final studio album, ‘The Visitors’. It was released in 1981, only eight years after their first record as a quartet, but it is a world away from the upbeat love songs and singalong anthems that shot the group to fame.
There’s a sense of sadness and darkness surrounding this album. It follows the breakup of the band’s two couples, with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus still writing songs for their ex-wives to perform. This creates a real poignancy on tracks about love and loss, which was first obvious on The Winner Takes It All after the divorce of Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog.
Along with the disintegration of relationships, the band was also dealing with the decline of disco and a growing ambition when it came to their compositions. So instead of catchy dance tunes about romance and relationships, ‘The Visitors’ showcases Abba’s more mature and creative pop talents, tackling themes from despair and loss, to politics and war.
The record starts with title track The Visitors, which is probably the highlight of the album, pulling the listener straight into Abba’s new sonic world. The band’s signature sleek arrangements and effortless harmonies are still here, but it’s a darker, more interesting sound, with a heavy use of synthesisers that continues throughout the album.
Thematically the track has been linked to tales of Soviet dissidents during the Cold War, but The Visitors is largely a mysterious song about fear, panic, cries for help, with dramatic nods to a “terror ever growing” and the “anguish of humiliation”. If you were expecting something along the lines of Dancing Queen, you’re in for a bit of a surprise.
Like any good Scandi-noir drama, ‘The Visitors’ has bleakness and tension in spades, twisting and turning from dark melancholy (Soldiers, I Let The Music Speak) to sentimental ballads (Slipping Through My Fingers, One Of Us). Although there are some lighter interludes with Head Over Heels and Two For The Price Of One, these tracks are still tinged with sadness. After around half an hour of turmoil, the record quietly comes to a close with the haunting Like An Angel Passing Through My Room.
The tone of this album is also echoed on its dark and sombre cover, which features all four members of the group waiting separately in the shadows, looking off into the distance. When compared to other iconic Abba album covers – like the quartet squeezed into a helicopter cockpit for ‘Arrival’ or closely sharing the spotlight on ‘Super Trouper’ – it hints at the fact that this was the beginning of the end for the group.
‘The Visitors’ may not have been as commercially successful as some of Abba’s other albums when it was first released, but it can now be looked back on as some of their finest, most sophisticated work. The record highlights the great changes the band had undergone, both musically and personally, since catapulting to stardom on Eurovision less than a decade earlier.
More importantly, ‘The Visitors’ is a fantastic final album and marks a graceful departure from the spotlight. It features one of the band’s greatest breakup songs, When All Is Said and Done, inspired by the separation of Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. But the track also perhaps reflects how Abba as a band are ready to move on and close this chapter of their careers together:
“Standing calmly at the crossroads, no desire to run. There's no hurry any more when all is said and done.”