“I never thought that I’d ever sing again. But hearing the first three songs, I just couldn’t say no!” With that, Agnetha Fältskog ends nine years of silence.
A lot has been said and written about Fältskog’s supposed anxiety and isolation. Her fear of flying, exacerbated during her time with ABBA; being forced to travel by bus, only to be thrown through a window in an accident; her stage fright, and various far-flung rumours about her private life, have helped create a figure that, at times, seemed more bizarre and reclusive even than Scott Walker. And that’s saying something.
However, by the sounds of new album A, all that was required was for someone to write some songs she liked the sound of. Quite simple, really.
The man responsible for inspiring Fältskog is songwriter and fellow Swede Jorgen Elofsson, who has worked with the likes of Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson. “We wanted to make this as if Agnetha hadn’t entered ABBA,” said Elofsson. “We were interested in what she would have sounded like if she hadn’t been in the group. And yet it’s important that she comes across as we remember her to be.”
Elofsson, along with another Swede, Peter Nordahl, have achieved this in all 10 of the album’s songs. Yet it’s to varying degrees of success and, at times, at the expense of the album’s primary asset: Fältskog’s voice, which is still as gorgeous as it was four decades or so ago; it hasn’t really aged at all. Album opener The One Who Loves You Now, in its own measured way, signals a triumphant return. Her vocal reaches the heights it’s known for, working particularly well with string and percussion arrangements, while also having a smoky Charlotte Gainsbourg touch to it at times. The lyrics also demonstrate Fältskog’s torment and return from it: “Everything I ever had I let it slip away, every dream I ever dreamed was lost until today.” It’s quite a moving opener.
But this is somewhat undone with When You Really Loved Someone, which contrasts with the opener entirely with its feel as a Eurovision-ish, naff love ballad, with buzzing, phaser-sounding keyboards and an overall production that’s overbearing. Following track Perfume In The Breeze is better, with textbook hooks with lyrics such as “vanish like a rainbow from the horizon of my heart” and jolly whistling interludes making this very summer radio friendly, while I Was A Flower again illustrates some sort of tortured persona through its lyrics (“I was a flower, now look what you have done – you made my colours fade… once I was innocent…”) and more minimal piano-based backing.
But then there’s the plainly odd I Should’ve Followed You Home, a duet with Gary Barlow that, on the face of it, won’t do those alleged stories about that stalker any good. While focussing on some sort of unrequited love through reflection, lyrics such as “I missed the chance to make you my own, now I know, I should’ve followed you home” are shiver inducing. It has the feel of a Kelly Clarkson ballad trying to be a bit more upmarket, but the lyrics and excessive production turn this into something rather disturbing. Perhaps – in the loosest sense of the word – this was intentional; some of ABBA’s best songs have a sort of illicit darkness to them – Does Your Mother Know is a case in point – but the impelling edginess in the music meant it worked there. It really doesn’t here.
Nevertheless, Dance Your Pain Away rescues the situation, taking Fältskog into more familiar pop/disco territory and bringing a touch of the Voulez-Vous. It largely works well, but Fältskog’s voice does get lost at times in the excessive production. Yet the fact it’s the most ABBA of all the songs excuses this. It raises a question – was making an album that tried to show Fältskog in a non-ABBA fashion really the right idea?
This question is raised further in Bubble, which again would sit well with Kelly Clarkson, especially with lyrics such as “in this bubble made for two”. Listening to it is laborious; despite the production being scaled back, allowing Fältskog’s voice to flourish a bit, the mundanity of the lyrics and the music itself don’t help her here.
But you forgive this somewhat when you hear Back On Your Radio, with lyrics like “caught in a radio shadow for the longest time, living out of the range of your love for the longest time… are you picking up my signal again?” seemingly addressing her long-term absence. Album closer I Keep Them On The Floor Beside My Bed, which Fältskog co-wrote with Elofsson, bookends the album well and, like the opener, is also moving in its own way: the string arrangements, Fältskog’s vocal and lyrics (“Memories start to flow, the pictures of me and you, I keep them on the floor beside my bed”) offer an insight into the Fältskog’s loneliness. In the end, despite its touches of melancholy, it’s in its own way quietly proud in the sense that she’s actually recording again.
At times A tries far too hard, with this idea of showing her in some other guise arguably an attempt at shaking off the image that has followed her around for years, while also distancing herself away from ABBA somewhat. But at the same time, despite its faults, what Fältskog, Elofsson and Nordahl try and achieve is quite brave. With less excessive production and better songs, this could have been an accomplished return – her voice is still there. As it is, we’re picking up some signals, but it requires some real tuning. Still, it’s wonderful to have Fältskog back – and we should be thankful for that. Confidence restored, we hope.