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The dark side of ABBA’s euphoric pop

Though they’re often written off as Europop cheese, the Swedish pop group wrote songs that are haunted by the ghosts of time

Even by the standards of 70s Eurodisco, “Waterloo” – ABBA’s first single, international smash hit, and the winner of the 1974 Eurovision song contest – is a weird fucking song. It compares the feeling of falling in love to Napoleon’s surrender at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815: “At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender / And I have met my destiny in quite a similar way,” Agnetha Fältskog and Frida Lyngstad sing. While the Swedish pop group make unashamedly joyous music, their lyrics are often surprisingly dark, exploring issues like divorce, loss, and memory.

Time, in particular, is a theme the band return to often, both lyrically and sonically. “Dancing Queen” is about “having the time of your life” when you’re 17, dancing all night until your feet blister, because you’ll never be young again. “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” is just as concerned with brevity. It’s a song about desire after dusk, a fling that’s unable to be sustained by daylight, only desirable in the dark.

The majority of ABBA’s songs take place in small, domestic spaces, contrasting the sonic disco sprawl that Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson create. Take “Mamma Mia”, a break-up-get-back-together song set in a house, with references to a doorbell ringing and slamming doors. ABBA take the intimacy of a domestic quarrel between lovers and inject melodrama (“Mamma Mia!”) and a crashing, anguished, almost unbearably catchy hook. A marimba tick-tocks in the background as the song chronicles a relationship that can’t last, and the pain of moving on.

Likewise, the narrator of “Knowing Me Knowing You”, from 1976’s Arrival, walks “through an empty house, tears in (her) eyes.” The house is haunted with memories and regret: “In these old familiar rooms children would play / Now there’s only emptiness, nothing to say.” Alone and confined to the rooms of their home, they relive the trauma of the breakup. Spectral background echoes positioned in the verse (“memories,” “good days,” “bad days”) sound like eerie voices whispering behind her.  

Similarly in Virginia Woolf’s short story A Haunted House, the protagonist is trapped in a house that echoes around her: “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, opening there, making sure – a ghostly couple.” The protagonist moves from being haunted to being the one doing the haunting. She wanders from room to room, unsure of her motives: “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find? My hands were empty.” The protagonist of “Knowing Me Knowing You” similarly changes from being haunted by the memories of her house to being the one haunting the rooms. She silently roams the corridors and projects her memories onto the house, almost begging to be free of its walls. “I have to go this time,” she sings, as the ghostly echoes repeat around her: “(I have to go this time / I have to go, this time I know).”

“Lyrically, thematically, and sonically, their music has always captured the fatalism and finite nature of time, both mourning and revelling in the inability to hold onto the present”

ABBA are often said to have two distinct phases in their career. Their early style, from the start of the 70s, is encapsulated by “Waterloo”, with its strange metaphors and disco synths, while their late style towards the end of the decade is typically described as moving towards more political lyrics and a richer, more nuanced sound. This late style culminates with 1981’s The Visitors. The group’s final studio album is steeped in the political paranoia and terror of the Cold War – as the title track goes, “I hear the doorbell ring and suddenly the panic takes me / The sound so ominously tearing through the silence.”

The stranger at the door encroaches on domestic life as the song’s protagonist is “numb and frozen / Among the things I love so dearly / The books, the paintings and the furniture.” Frida Lyngstad’s lead vocals sound strained in the verses. Her voice is almost a whine as she sings, “Someone tries the doorknob / None of my friends would be so stupidly impatient / And they don’t dare to come here / Anymore.” The stranger at the door is an enemy. In the chorus, “The Visitors” roars into full-on ABBA mode with a shimmering synth pop hook that’s as catchy as it is disconcerting: “My world is falling, going crazy / There’s no escaping now, I’m / Crackin’ up.”

Banned in the Soviet Union, The Visitors is explicitly political – the visitors at the door are an undoubtedly real threat, yet they also exist as a figment of the narrator’s imagination. While “Knowing Me Knowing You” is a depiction of how the spaces we live in retain our memories and thus ourselves, the ghosts in the haunted house of “The Visitors” are more real, with every floorboard’s creak and every “muffled noise” hinting at an unwelcome intruder, the threat of the outside, upturning your safe sanctuary.

“Like An Angel Passing Through My Room”, the album’s last song and the final track in ABBA’s discography, is about “peaceful solitude.” Lyngstad sings solo – it’s the only ABBA song that features just one vocalist – and she’s in her house, “alone / Sitting near the fireplace.” The embers of the fire are dying: we’re at the end of the night and at the end of ABBA’s career. Ghosts have become angels, and paranoia has turned into resignation. The song’s music is simplistic for ABBA. A proposal to turn it into a disco track was abandoned, and while it still retains ABBA’s characteristic synthesised shimmers, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson – inspired by nursery rhymes – give it gentle music box notes. “Everything comes back to me again,” sings Lyngstad, “In the gloom / Like an angel passing through my room.” The song is nostalgic – it sounds like the feeling of remembering or rediscovering something. Once again, a ticking clock creates the song’s rhythm, and eventually it stops.

While critics often disregard ABBA’s earlier, perhaps more innocently danceable songs as Eurovision pop, the themes and lyrical dissonance of late ABBA, so often hailed as the result of a band maturing from its teenage years to a midlife crisis, can be heard throughout the band’s discography. Lyrically, thematically, and sonically, their music has always captured the fatalism and finite nature of time, both mourning and revelling in the inability to hold onto the present. It’s right there in their first single: “The history book on the shelf / Is always repeating itself.”

ABBA: Super Troupers runs at London’s Southbank Centre until April 29

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