The first time you open one of the brand-spanking-new reissues of seven original Abba studio albums, a card comes out trumpeting Mamma Mia! That’s the Broadway production built around Abba hits and riffing on the film Muriel’s Wedding (which, along with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, gave Abba its most recent cultural revival). I opened each of these reissues, so the “convergence marketing” point (as AOL Time Warner’s Steve Case would no doubt spin it) was driven home emphatically.
Seven times the card fell to the floor and eight times I was swept away by the music sliding, shimmering and schamltzing out of the CD player — transported on garish musical wings to the land of Abba (or at least to an imagined 1970s swinging Sweden). The issue at hand — the en masse re-presentation of Abba material — couldn’t have come at a better time.
Seven Abba albums. Count ’em. After hours upon hours of Abba listening (while reading along with the über-group’s history in the liner notes, mind you), I’ve returned from the land of Benny, Bjorn, Anni-Frid and Agnetha with one conclusion: Abba is not a band, it is a sovereign musical state.
With all this now available for easy consumption, you too can get your passport to Abbaland. However, be warned. About 99 percent of what is absolutely essential about the Swede fab four is contained on Abba Gold, the group’s greatest-hits disc. Abba was a singles band, so a release of its albums is a blatant exercise in exorcising the back-catalog. But, from the debut, Ring Ring, through the breaking-up-is-hard-to-do navel gazing of The Visitors (if one is so inclined to pony up the dough for “research purposes”) one can track the technical, songwriting and interpersonal relationship evolution of pop’s most archetypal band. And let’s not forget that the quartet is also directly responsible for unleashing the dual horrors of Ace of Base and Roxette upon the world.
Each of the albums contains at least one recognizable tune and some are chock-full o’ hits. Unless you’re a diehard, there’s no reason to procure each of the records. But you would be well off to buy a copy of Voulez-Vous. It’s a pure Eurotrashdisco classic and well worth your time. There are moments on The Album that recall a particularly well-written musical. Arrival’s got a few hits that provide a foothold into the album tracks. And true to the life-as-art, leave-it-all-on-record aesthetic of Abba’s songwriting, the narrative ark of the group’s interpersonal relationships and the times they enjoyed are all mapped out quite clearly here. Much of the rest of the grooves on these reissues, however, are exercises in escapism blanketed under cover of historical document.
Escapism’s not the worst thing you could indulge in right about now (hell, if they can weather a Stockholm winter and come up with this Eurodisco shimmer, we can avoid seasonal affective disorder symptoms). But it’s also apt that Abba makes its presence known in the record bins again for one reason I must admit to having copped. As Chicago rock crit Jim DeRogatis pointed out recently in a lucid diatribe against Britneyculture, there’s a sea of change happening in pop music “production values” that threatens to make Abba, er, Ab-solete. Simply put, Abba invented the vapid, stadium-ready glitter that has coated the past few years of ’N Syncs, Backstreets and other Orlando “tween” pop acts. That these performance troupes have fared so well first in the land of the Euro should be no surprise. Mouseketeer Svengali Lou Perlman didn’t invent anything. He just put a distinctly American face on the culture of vapid romance hoodoo that Abba patented. However, pop R&B production has evolved so quickly and R&B has taken up such space in the popular imagination that there’s simply no room for vapid Eurodisco vampage on the pop charts any longer. It looks like it’s back to kitsch value for Abba. Perhaps it’s just a blissful momentary monopoly on taste being enjoyed by non-Nordic pop culture or perhaps they’ll be baaack. Either way, look for Abba on a shelf near you and, as they say, thank you for the music. Hell, go see Mamma Mia! and get the hits. But remember, there are four people behind the wall of glitz you’re enjoying and they certainly did a fabulous job of lifting a leg on pop’s musical tree.
E-mail Chris Handyside at firstname.lastname@example.org.