ABBA's last Lp, released in late 1981 in time to capture the Christmas market, was "The Visitors." Unlike all of their previous albums, it is not cheery and optimistic at all and is somewhat edgy - classic Scandinavian melancholy. Even the cover: None of the globally-known pop stars are smiling and all are looking away from each other. It mirrors their weariness with the stress of the entertainment industry and each other - relationships breaking up.
The title song is a favorite of mine, the lyrics expressing rising paranoia to a well-produced synthesized beat. I remember the first time I heard it... it was the first digitally-recorded rock/pop song I'd ever heard (ABBA's Polar Studios was a pioneer with digital sound recording - even Led Zeppelin recorded there) and I was blown away by the clear, strong sound and precise production. Of course, it sounds even better on CD.
But I have always wondered about the last two songs on the album, "Slipping Through My Fingers" and "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room." The lyrics for both songs are here. The first song is a straightforward piece about the pangs of parenthood, seeing your child grow up and away from you. It may seem somewhat maudlin in tone, but I assure you, when my wife and I saw it sung during the otherwise wretched film "Mamma Mia" just after our last child moved out of the house and we became empty-nesters, it had considerable emotional impact. I hadn't heard the song in many years, and was shocked to realize that a tune I had considered to be mere pop - ABBA! - now had such meaning and craft.
The song fades out to the sound of a ticking clock, which provides the segue for the last song, the mystic, "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room," a lullaby. The first time I heard it, I wondered, "What was that about? And why the ticking clock as a linking device?"
I now have an interpretation, and from my basic research on the Internet I think it is unique. The ticking clock strongly suggests the passing of time. The child who was the subject of the first song is somehow now dead, and a grieving parent sits alone in her room. But the child's spirit comforts her, "like an angel passing through her room." The giveaway lyric for me is "Love was one prolonged goodbye," which is also exactly the theme of the first song. And the song's position on the Lp - the very end - is also suggestive. Finally, didn't Eric Clapton also suggest angels - Tears in Heaven - when his own son died?
Musically, the song is beautiful, just Frieda's voice (produced as if it comes from everywhere and nowhere in the sonic field) and Bjorn's synthesizers, no drums or bass - it is very otherworldly.
My interpretation makes sense if you read the lyrics to the second song - at least, nothing contradicts it. Were Benny and Bjorn suggesting the death of the child of the first song? Clever songwriters almost never reveal themselves except through their lyrics; the game is to make the listener personalize the song with meanings of their own. But if they were suggesting the child's death, they had come a very long way in emotional resonance from their early songs (Waterloo, Mamma Mia). Certainly, ABBA's "The Visitors" is a refreshingly stronger and more adult work than their previous Lps. And it holds up well; I still like listening to it. In fact, it is my favorite ABBA Lp by far.
Perhaps, however, I'm merely being influenced by a video for an odd and haunting Ditty Bops song, "Short Stacks," wherein the ghost of a little girl returns to comfort her grieving parents and to witness her brother grow up and away from the home. (The actual song lyrics seem to be more mundane - about courtship and/or breakfast. It's hard to tell. But the producer of the video heard the minor key melody and saw something else.)
That's the great thing about music - it is often infinitely customizable and I am easily programmed.
I have personalized an enormous amount of music in this way. Whenever I hear the wind blow on a sunny day I think of the opening clarinet theme to Myaskovsky's 21st Symphony. Why? Because when I first heard the piece in 1973 I was staring out the windows, watching the wind howl through our neighbor's eucalyptus trees.
Ravel's La Valse reminds me of my trips to Del Mar (California) race track with my father; I heard it play on the radio one afternoon there while I was waiting to pick him up.
Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto reminds me not of jazz, Benny Goodman or the 1940's (when it was written). I think of the subject matter of the books I was reading at the time I got to like the music: the American Civil War!
Those are the happy memories - there are painful ones, too. My father died when Brahms' German Requiem was on my mind. I cannot hear the "All Flesh is Grass" segment without thinking of his death and the funeral.
Life would be impossible without music...
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