Sunday, January 11, 2009

This isn’t the post on Abba that I intend to write but may at least be a preamble to it. I should point out now that I take Abba EXTREMELY seriously.

Basically I’ve been listening to the Visitors a lot, having picked it up just before Christmas, with a few bonus tracks, on a cd re-issue. Obviously it’s a great record, but not really substantially better or different in tone to anything else they ever did. As it’s a wee bit more Nordic, darker and colder and a tad more keyboard-y ( and it has a sinister title) it has the reputation of being the Abba album it’s ok to like, something partly based on the fact that the single finest piece of writing on Abba, or possibly on anything, Taylor Parkes' essay on the Visitors in the sadly-in need -of-a-re-issue Unknown Pleasures book given away with Melody Maker donkey’s years ago, has taken on a kind of holy status. Well, it has for me and the Baron at least.

One of the singles from The Visitors was When all is said and done, the other of Abba’s two great divorce songs, along with The Winner takes it all. The Winner is touched by a certain tragic existential grandeur, a brilliant combination of the cosmic and the quotidian. “I don’t want to talk if it makes you feel bad” / “the gods may roll a dice. Their minds as cold as ice” capture something of the agonizing enormity of emotional pain, the whole world is subsumed by it, from the tiniest domestic detail up to the nightmarishly impersonal nature of the universe. It’s a magnificent example of the way in which an entire cosmology can cluster and set its co-ordinates around a relationship, the degree to which separation can be an apocalyptic experience, the sundering away of the world whose underlying principles you understood and it’s replacement with a raw, unmediated reality too vertiginously vast for you to do anything but shrink from for a while. The world doesn’t make sense without you.

But When all is said and done has a grandeur all its own. I’ll expand on this when I write more on Abba and their perfect distillation of what for Humanist critics is largely considered to be the fundamental purpose of art, that it offers us the possibility of reconciliation to the flawed and compromised nature of our efforts at happiness, the Chekhovian “laughter that smiles through tears”, or more prosaically, the bittersweet. The simultaneous recognition/acceptance of the impossibility of fulfilment brings the joy of escape from the unattainable ideal at the same time as the disappointment of unfilled hopes compresses some other part of you.
Clearly there are FAR too many bands aiming at this, well, let’s call it, Humanist Affect (fugging Coldplay, and all them cunts) but no one has ever attained it so well as ABBA, and any idea that it will be possible to surpass them seem to me to be wrong. They represent a certain type of horizon. I will elaborate on why at some future point. Suffice to say that the affect aimed at, which requires a certain kind of internal tension between form and content can only be fully realised in Pop. Rock has a hard time getting at it and indeed it’s when it moves closest to pop, say John Cougar Melloncamp’s Jack and Diane ( whose rousing, sing-along chorus is “ oh yeah, life goes in/long after the thrill of living is gone” ) that it’s most effective.

But for the moment I’m focussing on When all is said and done. There is an element to the song, a part of what makes it so joyful, that carries in fact a certain kind of ironic, counter-intuitive comic charge, suggestive of the idea that finally the best role some people can play in your life is that of an ex-partner. Indeed it may even be the case that the qualities you recognize in someone, that leads you onto want to be with them, is that they have all the qualities of a great ex. The relationship you can have once you’ve got through the tedious preparatory rigmarole of having the actual “relationship” and break-up itself may have been what you were aiming at all along. You're looking for someone who will finally forgive you as you will forgive them.
There can be an insufferable side to this, a certain Liberal-humanist grandstanding (“look how superhumanly mature and non-judgemental I am") and equally it may be that in later life, going round the block for the Nth time it’s the only possible entry into the narcissistic mirroring that gets you so hard the very first time round, rather than celebrating each other’s implicit amazingness (you’re amazing and you think I’m amazing so I must be as amazing as you are too, and you are really amazing, so…) you have access to a more muted but still joyful bit of mutual gratification. But on another level, and at it’s best, it’s a liberating acknowledgement of both another persons limitations and their depths, a desire to engage with the person in full, fantasy traversed, the relationship itself just the arduous shedding of illusion, the preparation for the really gratifying thing, being the ex.

There’s certainly a wonderfully celebratory, deeply moving form of engagement in When all is said and done which isn’t in Winner takes it all. First off, Winner, like so many ABBA songs is fundamentally addressed to another, to “YOU” a device much more common in ABBA than any other band and surely vital to their impact, (along with the skill with which their videos, surely the most singularly brilliant ever made, exploited the tensions of their inter-relationship, but again, more on this later) When all is said, is all about “we”. It’s not just that it’s stillwe”; perhaps it’s only now that it finally can be.
"Standing calmly at the crossroads, no desire to run
There's no hurry any more when all is said and done"


owen hatherley said...

More! More! Maybe you should inflict Mamma Mia! on yourself as a preamble?

Also - not quite as good as Parkes, but pretty damn good, and making a similar point on the (very unusual in pop) emotional maturity of ABBA, I'm sure you read Mark on ABBA from a while ago?

Incidentally I've just watched this and am now going to have to go off and weep profusely.

Anonymous said...

"and without really knowing i hid a part of me away"

mere mortals should not even look upon it with their filthy err.. ears..

yep.. i am going to write more...

fancy an evening of Abba and cocktails at some point ( ahh life in recession hit britain!)? perhaps a viewing of Mamma Mia????? the half i saw on the plane was deeply painful to me, i must confess..

and i must translate the spanish version at some point.. very different lyrics but also very good

parodijski centr said...

I don't wanna talk
if it makes you feel sad,


but does your prostration for ABBA here have anything to with your last year's quarter-life crisis, or have you grown to embrace the 40-year old loser within?

...and I understand,
you´ve come to take my hand...
...and my money...
...and Kosovo...
...and Russian gas...

Anonymous said...

Ramsgate eagerly anticipates the more substantive consideration of Abba and appreciates the taster. We can, of course, vouch for Carls endorsement of Abba as a decades- long project and not menopausally motivated as suggested below.Nothing suprprising in this really as much of their work is a poignantly glistening modernist edifice built around a glam core.
Hard to think of a band with such a diverse "ownership" demographic. Interesting thought that the videos might be given more critical acclaim- i think it's time i watched your nephew's Abba Gold video collection with him.

parody center said...

Anonymous, Agnetha O. Hatherley and Frida the Impostor are like that Benjamin Button tale, growing old in reverse. The next thing you know we'll be having Samantha Fox revivals all over the place: ''in her huge breasts I found a warmth, a reclamation of motherhood''... and from there it's only kitty corner to a re-envisioning of Bucks Fizz.