26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Definitive, two-disk over-view of ABBA, 1972-1982.,
This review is from: Definitive Collection (2cd) (Audio CD)
It's a shame that Abba are sometimes dismissed as mere purveyors of camp, cabaret pop, with most fans unable to get past the dodgy fashions and elaborate stage-routines that have since become an anachronism in these days of homogenised, corporate rock for children. If I were Benny or Bjorn, I'd be rather insulted by the continual focus on the glitz and glamour, with most music critics refusing to acknowledge the gorgeous melodies, impeccable instrumental work and lyrical themes that cut deeper than the bouncy choruses and stilted delivery would suggest, which really defined the Abba sound.
This collection brings together all of Abba's most-recognisable hit-singles released over the course of their ten-year career, moving largely in chronological order, from the naÔve Europop of songs like People Need Love, Love Isn't Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough) and their breakthrough Eurovision piece, Waterloo, through to more recognisable hits like Fernando, Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen, Knowing Me Knowing You and Voulez-Vous, right the way through to the more sombre stuff, like The Winner Takes It All, Lay All Your Love On Me and The Day Before You Came. Each of the songs demonstrate Benny and Bjorn's musical progression from entertaining but not all that jaw-dropping pop in the early 70's pub-rock tradition, through to something much more vital and progressive, with more emphasis on layered instrumentation, melodious arrangements and creative production.
What's always more impressive, in my opinion at least, are the lyrics, with the two young songwriters seeming more than able to write from the male and female perspectives, creating mini-narratives that deal in real-life issues like love and loss (and often deeper social concerns as well), all shot through with a sense of cabaret abstraction and cinematic bombast. The use of music is always complementary to the subject of the lyrics, for example the bobbing hooks and rhythmic key-changes in Dancing Queen, the use of the militia drum and more antique instrumentation in Fernando, the continual shifting between major chords and minor chords to convey the emotional uncertainty of a bitter song like Knowing Me, Knowing You, and so on.
Not that you have to read so much into the songs to really enjoy them, though... it just goes to show that there was much more to Abba's magic than silly costumes and an inability to see the funny side of their on-stage personas. As storytellers, Benny and Bjorn are amongst the most important to ever put their words to music... creating narratives and musical characters that are as vital and as memorable as anything by Dylan or the Beatles. And their words and musical notations are brought wonderfully to life by the inter-weaving vocals of Anni-Frid and Agnetha, and the varied, hook-heavy instrumentation of Benny, Bjorn and their numerous collaborators. The production and engineering of their records began to become much more varied and sonically-defined around the time of their "Abba" album, particularly on songs like Mamma Mia and then becoming even more impressive, both musically and lyrically, on their next album, Arrival (which many consider to be their best), with firm-favourites like Dancing Queen and abovementioned Knowing Me further illustrating the progression they'd made over the first few years of their career.
The disco period that followed towards the end of the 70's wasn't my favourite period of the band's history (I suppose you had to be there), but it did give us a collection of memorable tracks, the best amongst them including the epic, and not at all disco sounding Eagle, the pure chic-disco-madness of Voulez-Vous and the admittedly camp, Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (as with Knowing Me, Knowing You... this would become better-known as the title and theme to a BBC2 comedy series).
My favourite period of Abba takes up most of disc-2, the period in which the relationships between the band members had turned sour, and Benny and Bjorn decided to show this by writing some gorgeous pop songs about heart-break, loneliness and despair. The Winner Takes It All is a gorgeous song about divorce, with a fantastic operatic vocal performance from Agnetha and some lovely use of the piano. This was the era of another of their classic album, Super Trouper, with the title-track here illustrating everything that was great about the band (lovely melody, great performance, intelligent arrangements filled with a barrage of hooks, and those beautifully melancholic lyrics). This leads us into the synth-era of Abba, with a song like On and On and On owing more to the British electro-pop scene of the early 80's, whilst classic track Lay All Your Love On Me features a gloomy orchestral arrangement performed entirely on synthesisers.
This takes us into the era surrounding their final album, the often-discredited Visitors, which had a much darker sound to undercut the perfect pop melodies and the surprisingly minimal arrangements. One of Us is still one of the finest songs Abba ever produced, and is perfectly complimented by the similarly great When All Is Said and Done (another contender for my favourite Abba song of all time). The title track from that album points more towards the social, rather than the personal, with Benny and Bjorn dealing with themes of war and political upheaval during the time of the conflict in the Soviet Union, and also has similar ties with the very last Abba single, Under Attack.
The collection draws to a close with the Abba anthem, Thank You For the Music (which I'm not that fond of personally) and two bonus cuts of Ring Ring and Voulez-Vous. All in all, this is a great (and definitive) collection of Abba's brief ten-years of world domination, and some of the finest examples of pure-pop music you're ever likely to find.