One Of Us (The Visitors, 1982)
One thing I love about ABBA is their precision of language. As ESL speakers Benny and Bjorn are terribly careful about words – I never get the feeling they realised what great lyricists they were – and when they slip it shows. But their care over English creates effects other pop groups rarely match. Case in point, in this song: “You were, I felt, robbing me of my rightful chances”. The way Agnetha sings it you can hear those commas – “You were, I felt…” – and they set up the rest of the song, and its singer’s character, perfectly. Wounded dignity – though that’s par for the course in an ABBA song. But the need to put that conditional clause in at all – is she the sort of person who needs to qualify things, or is this an early acknowledgement of her vulnerability, a sense that her decision to leave has misfired?
“One Of Us” – an early example of Swedish Reggae, not badly done – has one of the really gorgeous ABBA choruses, up there with any they wrote. In several of the places which loved them, it was their final No.1. It’s also a humiliating admission of fault and stupidity, which makes it one of their songs that feels different - and a little icky - when you remember an ex-husband is writing this stuff for an ex-wife to sing.
But Benny and Bjorn had wandered into similarly finger-wagging territories with “Hey Hey Helen” back when things were still publically rosy. So it’s not just a divorce thing. Did ABBA’s songwriters have a problem with women’s autonomy? It seems to me it’s not quite that simple - they might have done, but the music they wrote undermined it anyway. Lyrically, “Hey Hey Helen” sets itself up to concern-troll a woman who’s ended a relationship to become “a modern woman of today”. But the music - big, fat, celebratory rock riffs, unusually kick-ass for ABBA - leaves you in absolutely no doubt who to sympathise with.
“One Of Us” - sung in first person, with none of “Helen“‘s two-fingers vim or backing-vox get-out clauses, winds up a little too self-abasing for comfort (though so do people, sometimes). But again, the music - a great big Comfort Manatee of harmonies and synth washes - makes it very hard not to side with the singer, carefully placed commas and all.
ABBA is so good that even a decorative echo in one of their choruses can go on to become a great pop song in its own right. (“The Sign” by Ace of Bace)
Great points about ABBA’s lyricism, too. Similar to some observations I’ve made about a few Ashlee Simpson songs — power in economy, etc.
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