Although it was never intended to be the groups swansong, Abbas 1981 release The Visitors ended up being its final record; a gloomy set of songs that fully reflect the personal turmoil preceding its creation. With both of the intra-group marriages having ended in divorce, the additional pressures of writing, recording and touring must have placed incredible strain on everyones creativity, and The Visitors ends up mixing a few gems with what can mostly be described as filler.
At only nine songs, part of what saves the record from dropping too low in estimation is that its rather consistent. Much of the music contained within has a melancholic trance reminiscent of I Wonder (Departure) from 1977s The Album, with musical-tinged songwriting delivered with production techniques that display the emerging styles of the eighties. The Visitors thus ends up being Abbas most synth-heavy record, but Benny and Bjorn continue to show their good taste; using the electronic buzzes to augment and accentuate the songs rather than deafening the listener with cheap gimmicks.
That said, this is arguably Abbas weakest record since Waterloo, and while its certainly more accomplished and sophisticated than that dud-heavy commercial breakout, theres still a general sense of malaise hanging in the air. The melodies are notably less memorable than before, and while you can still tell that they were penned by some of the seventies best hitmakers, they feel like the product of an auteur having a rough day. In fact, the only song that comes close of the level of previous smashes is the single One of Us, a glorious ballad that opens with a cascade of Venetian strings before launching into a lovely folk-pop ditty, complete with beautifully constructed harmonies from Agnetha and Anni-Frid. The composition is also one of Abbas most emotionally real and affecting, trading in the bombast of The Winner Takes It All for sheer resigned exhaustion and some magnificent melodic crescendos in its chorus. Its the only song from The Visitors that made the Gold greatest hits collection, and deserves its status as the groups final major hit.
If One of Us is the records nod to the past, its ethereal title track points to the future, proving a curious and unpredictable number that creates an elaborate, fluid synthscape with Indian motives and some (admittedly questionable) vocal effects. The song eventually lifts into a dynamic disco chorus after two minutes of wry flirtation, driving along on some strong keyboard riffs and succeeding in building a swirling atmosphere. The song is one of the biggest shocks in the Abba catalogue, and its certainly interesting to consider what the group might have gone on to achieve given this intriguing evidence.
The third best track on the album is its second piece Head Over Heels, a slightly corny pop tune boasting an irresistible verse melody based upon a tango, mixed with a big chorus featuring twee synth effects and a heavy clapping beat. Its good and catchy if you block out its cheesy aura, and would probably have been a decent choice for a single release.
Apart from those three songs, The Visitors mostly offers rather average material (although Abbas average is still better than most pop groups excellent). When All Is Said and Done has some solid development from ballad beginnings to a reserved synth-rocker with sweet vocals and a pleasant tune; nevertheless, it ends up being much too ephemeral for its own good. Ditto for the military beats of Soldiers, which has a rich aura with excellently employed synthesisers ebbing and flowing, but fails to stir much reaction besides an appreciative nod. These songs are in no way bad, yet theyre definitely lacking that special Abba kick.
The remaining pieces are all various types of ballads, from the nice-but-overlong Broadway belle musings of I Let The Music Speak (with a luscious performance from Anni-Frid, who handles most of it solo) to the lullaby-ish music box twinkling of Like An Angel Passing Through My Room. All are sweet, floating numbers that are great to soak in should the mood strike, but only the lovely chorus and coda of Slipping Through My Fingers ever threaten to rise above the level of inoffensive. Still, its applause-worthy that the group didnt allow personal conflicts to detract from its music, with only the cheap, Bjorn-sung Two For The Price of One providing a flaw sounding like a slightly tweaked version of a track from Ring Ring, with a juvenile melody and a silly narrative about a man answering a personal ad that makes it the groups worst lyrical piece since the dreaded King Kong Song.
Taken as a whole, The Visitors doesnt really manage to hold up when compared to the records Abba produced during its late-seventies peak, although its still an enjoyable album that provides a good snapshot of the foursomes emotional state during the time and is worth picking up if youre a fan and see it going cheaply (especially if its the re-master with the excellent Under Attack and The Day Before You Came also included). As with Voulez-Vous, this certainly isnt the right place to start listening to the group, but it remains a viable and pleasant final release thats in stunning contrast to the childish joie-de-vivre of Ring Ring, and further proof of just how much Abba grew during its time.
The Abba Discography
Ring Ring; Waterloo; Abba; Arrival; The Album; Voulez-Vous; Super Trouper; The Visitors