No amount of professional focus could shield the members of ABBA from the fact that the first volume of their incredible story was coming to a close in 1981. With their marriages fractured, an urgent restlessness had begun to creep into the band’s songwriting. While their 1980 album, Super Trouper, had retrenched into a familiar palette of ABBA styles, its follow-up, The Visitors, appeared determined to break rank with much that had gone before.
Released on 30 November 1981, the album was very much a record of its moment: the lyrical themes are darker, the synths predominate and the melodies are sometimes less immediately accessible than before. As such, The Visitors almost seemed determined to challenge the band’s then-maturing loyal fanbase, for whom the 70s already seemed like an awfully long time ago.
‘One Of Us’ was picked as the record’s first single in most markets and is the album’s most accessible entry point; its moody pop melody gave the band their last major hit, peaking at No.3 in the UK. In the US, however, the powerful ballad ‘When All Is Said And Done’ launched the collection, making the Billboard Top 30. The bleak synth epic ‘Soldiers’, meanwhile, manages to capture enough of Benny and Björn’s melodic flair to catch light, but the majestic pomp of ‘I Let The Music Speak’ showcases the group at its most downbeat and reflective. Many of the markers to the songwriters’ next direction – the stage musical Chess – can be spotted here.
‘Two For The Price Of One’ and the band’s next single, ‘Head Over Heels’, offer more familiar – and lighter – pop fare, but it’s the ballads that leave a lasting impression. The beautiful ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ emerged as a limited single in Japan, while the final, stripped-back track, ‘Like An Angel Passing Through My Room’, lays the groundwork for the news that fans feared – even though a formal announcement never really came. It would be wrong to read too much into the fact that, with Frida performing solo, the song remains the only ABBA release to date to feature just one vocalist, but it played to the sense of the band’s fragmentation.
The Visitors’ title track offers a rare upbeat moment, but it, too, is icier and more brittle than listeners might expect, with new studio techniques certainly sharpening the album’s electronic sheen. The album is, in some sense, overburdened by its wider frames of reference and a biting personal melancholy, but it nonetheless topped the charts in the UK and some other European markets. The Visitors remains their oddball offering – somewhat overlooked at the time, but critically acclaimed in hindsight.
ABBA’s story has no closing chapter. The Visitors marked the end of the beginning, but there was plenty more to come…
The Visitors can be bought here.