“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”
– C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer
The Swedish pop music quartet known as ABBA—Agnetha, Benny, Björn, Ana-Frid—must be known by just about everyone in the world, and everybody likely has an instant take on them; mainly it’s either “I love them” or “I can’t stand them.” During their career together from 1972 to 1982, they became popular in Britain and Europe well before the USA, and have been in general a lot more popular in Europe. Yours Truly first encountered them as a young transplant from America to Ireland in the mid 1970s, and at 8 or 9 years of age became enraptured by Agnetha on the record sleeve but also by the insanely catchy tunes and alluring recordings.
Of-course—excepting the prodigious among us—no one has discerning taste in music at 8 or 9. Still, I maintain in the face of argument that I have ultimately developed decent musical taste, and have journeyed through various phases of taste and discernment to the present day, discarding some affections while acquiring others. Yet, I never discarded ABBA. Their lack of coolness in many circles never bugged me; I’ve liked (and disliked) the cool and the uncool, and watched many artists journey through stages of coolness and uncoolness, but all that had no influence on how I enjoyed the music. (Truth be told, I’ve enjoyed being perverse that way.) And as time went on I came to realize that in the end what I like is just pop music. Even when listening to debatably-different genres like jazz, folk, punk, country, it’s all just pop music to me, and I’m always on the lookout for that special transition to the sublime that happens when a great pop song, in the right hands, produces chills, tears or unfathomable joy.
For the epitome of a great pop record, I could do no better than to point to the example John Lennon liked to reference: “Be My Baby,” the Phil Spector tune and production, performed by the Ronettes.
While great popular music can obviously get considerably more sophisticated and mature than “Be My Baby,” that track possesses all the essential elements—irresistible tune, great sound and performance, a persuasive pathos and terrific pithiness—and it hits you good and hard with all of that stuff, which makes it such an attractive archetype.
Over their career, ABBA hit the heights, occasionally the depths, and everywhere in-between, but all in all delivered an amazing number of superb tunes that have more than proven their worth by virtue of their longevity in the popular consciousness. I’ve always had a soft spot for their simplest pure pop confections, like “Ring Ring,” “Hasta Manana,” and “Honey, Honey.” Sure, there’s a treacly quality to those early sides, but a little a bit of sugar never added to the bitterness in this world.
And a little later in their career, is there a better pop record about a struggling-to-survive marriage than “One Man, One Woman”? Or a more poignant take on watching a child grow up (and grow away) than “Slipping Through My Fingers”?
I’m deliberately avoiding mentioning the biggest hits of all, because everyone knows them so well anyway. Again, the longevity of these songs is amazing, and—by their own account—shocking to the members of ABBA themselves. Something’s going on when so many thousands of contemporaneous hits are all but forgotten, while these continue to be played and discovered anew by millions of listeners. The use of the songs in movies and musicals has been part of that, of-course, but the fact of their usage in those new forms itself attests to their durability. (Personally, I never dug any of that stuff: I continue to just like the original records, though there are one or two cover versions I’ve enjoyed.)
I’d suggest that for a pop artist or group to generate the continuing public affection that ABBA demonstrably have done, there needs to be some inspirational quality in what they do. There needs to be an evocation of something higher, whatever one calls it; there needs to be a stretch towards the sublime. Cynical music (which unfortunately there’s plenty of) doesn’t last, certainly not in the popular consciousness.
In the case of ABBA, I think this inspirational element is their implicit joy in and gratitude for music itself. It’s audible in the records, and it is contagious, and it infects and uplifts the willing listener. It comes across both in the craft of the songwriting and the obvious care and pleasure the artists take in their performances and recordings.
And, conveniently enough, they actually have a song that expresses it directly. That would be “Thank You for the Music.”
Gratitude itself is kind of a holy thing. (From way back.) And expressing gratitude for music is inescapably a “thank you” to the Creator of music. Now, the song has those cute lines wondering who originally “found out that nothing can capture a heart like a melody can,” and then asserting, “well, whoever it was, I’m a fan.” However, although Mr. Gore invented the internet, everyone knows that no politician, industrialist or even any noble peasant invented music. Music is built in to the universe: the music of the spheres, generated from the form and harmony of reality itself. Humans were not needed to create it, but only, perhaps, to hear it. (And make hit records with it.)
I should say that I don’t mean to tread on the religious beliefs or lack thereof of the members of ABBA here. I have no idea what they are, and I’m happy to assume for the sake of argument that all four are securely secular Swedes. That doesn’t matter: a great song is a song which both emerges from somewhere mysterious and continues off to somewhere mysterious. It is not a manifesto of the songwriter’s opinions, because by definition then it would not be a great song. (Not all songwriters know this, to their detriment, but as attested to by their work, Benny and Björn most certainly do.)
When the first new songs to be heard from ABBA in almost forty years were premiered, there were people assembled in various places to enjoy and share the moment. On hearing “I Still Have Faith in You,” and “Don’t Shut Me Down,” many cried, and some compared it to a sacred experience. It might be easy to deride such reactions, but I think what many fans were experiencing did indeed have a sacred element, in that the tears were ones of gratitude. There was a sense of overwhelming gratitude that something extraordinarily unlikely—and quite beautiful—was actually coming to pass.
After all, ABBA were not supposed to get back together and create new music. For decades, it was never seriously contemplated that they would. They’d been there, done that, couldn’t top it, and obviously preferred to leave it as it was. Their breakup was also not merely the run-of-the-mill ending of a musical partnership, but also involved two broken marriages. Reuniting and trusting one another sufficiently to record an album of new songs (some quite personal) cannot but have required an inestimable level of forgiveness.
And one must also consider the unlikeliness of it purely as a matter of physics and biology, if you will. All four are now in their seventies. What are the chances—not merely that all four would still be living—but that all four would be in sufficiently good physical and mental health to make music like they did forty years ago? That part was completely out of their control, and out of everyone’s. There’s a line in “I Still Have Faith in You” about being “humble and grateful to have survived,” and, honestly, no kidding! The tears of gratitude that listeners shed on hearing that song were unavoidably (even if unconsciously) aimed at that Source of things way beyond human power to fashion: things like the very fact of music itself, and of life. When one is crying tears of gratitude for such things, one is not imagining oneself crying into a void, after all. Where there is gratitude, there is a recipient.
The song celebrates faith in one another, and that is surely a wonderful thing, but of-course our faith in one another is not infinite. We are human. We betray, we fight, we divorce; we get sick and we die. Like gratitude, faith also demands a worthy object, and though unnamed and almost surely unintended, that idea envelopes this song.
And it’s a great song: classic ABBA. As is the album as a whole. In addition to being moving, it was really quite funny hearing these new tracks, because it actually sounds as if they’d just gone back into the studio the week after recording their last album and got started again. In their time, their sound was their own but also quite cognizant of contemporary trends. But on this new record they completely ignore the last 40 years of whatever has gone down in the pop music world and are just right back where they left off. (If anything, maybe more 1978 than 1982.)
One of my favorite songs on the album is in fact an outtake from those years that they pulled out and refashioned. That is “Just a Notion,” and hearing it was the impetus for writing this piece in the first place. I felt something strange and remarkable in it and just had to try and put my finger on it. I have no doubt others have heard it too, although I don’t bump into too many ABBA fans round these parts. But, speaking frankly, it was Bob Dylan who helped me hear it. When he recorded his five LPs worth of Great American Songbook/Sinatra tunes, he uncovered (to my ears and mind and those of others) how so many of these great songs of extravagant romantic love can be heard as part of a heavenly dialogue; as a kind of loving conversation with our Maker. I have no idea how Dylan did this, because he didn’t change a single thing about the songs. (He even copied most of the arrangements from Frank’s records.) But do it he did, and quite resoundingly, and in every way those recordings stand as some of the greatest work he has done in his rather otherworldly career. And in doing so, he highlighted how, when even pop songwriters are doing their best work, they cannot but intersect with that higher order of things, and pull down notes from an ineffable melody being played by the most masterful musician of all.
“Just a Notion” is, as Benny has said, a ridiculously happy song. Musically, the recording evokes the aforementioned Phil Spector just a bit for me, as it delivers a pretty decent wall of sound. (I guess the background brass riffs also evoke Spector for me.) It also defies the usual dynamics of a pop record, in that it doesn’t start low and go up, then go back down and go up again, but instead it builds and explodes, then builds more and explodes more, and then builds MORE and explodes MORE. It’s a lot of fun, if you like that kind of thing.
In the song, the singer is apparently possessed by an inexplicable certainty that she is about to meet her dream lover and they are about to embark on their happily-ever-after life. She is exhilarated by this thought and by her sureness about it, and that’s the whole song—just emphasizing over and over again how much faith she has that this encounter will imminently occur.
Just a notion
That you’ll be walking up to me
In a while and you’ll smile and say hello
And we’ll be dancing through the night
Knowing everything from thereon must be right
In real life there’s a thin line between this kind of thinking and terrible tragedy, of-course, but the song brooks none of that. It is 3 1/2 minutes of perfect joy; indeed, it is ecstatic.
And, recalling the lessons from Bob, the thought of ecstasy might suggest another kind of encounter. On that level, I can’t escape the notion that this song expresses the very kind of intense joy that a true believer—someone gifted with a rare and profound faith—might feel when meditating upon the love of God. Think of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” if you will, or other hymns on the theme. It is the confidence of being secure in the Master’s hand. Even, most blessedly of all, at the very moment of death.
Some may think that a rather macabre idea, but death is the one thing that comes for everybody—much more reliably than a new ABBA album—and wouldn’t it be a consolation if one were able to greet that departure (and arrival) with such a song?
Just so, it would also be wonderful to be able to greet every day of life on earth with such a spirit of hope, faith and joy. Gratitude is due, after all.