A stunning cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S.” appeared this week on Portishead’s Facebook page, in response to the killing of British politician Jo Cox last week. The song transcends context, however, something which the new arrangement makes all too clear. A prayer of epic proportions:
This comes only three weeks after the Swedish megastars occupied the same stage for the first time in almost 30 years. What better opening to post a few paragraphs from the “Crying ABBA” chapter of A Mess of Help:
If there’s a downside to scoring so many number one singles, it’s that [ABBA’s] albums have been overshadowed by their hits. They recorded eight LPs over the course of nine years, and all of them are pretty terrific. But albums are what serious artists make, and up until very recently, ABBA were considered pop stars. Their squeaky clean image—the silly outfits, the disco dance routines, the somewhat loose grasp of English—has not helped their reputation as bubblegum fluff. Of course, you cannot completely blame the public. A song like “Put On Your White Sombrero” doesn’t exactly command respect.
And yet, if we know anything about the group, it’s that appearances can be deceiving. The smiling publicity shots hid the crumbling marriages of both couples in the band: Bjorn & Agnetha and Benny & Frida. (Or, as they’re more commonly known, the Mullet & the Blonde, the Beard & the Redhead.) The ultimate feel-good band of the 70s did not sing about very happy subjects. “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, with its sparkling guitars and upbeat melody, tells a heartbreaking and rather hopeless story of divorce. “S.O.S.” surfs a joyous chorus to relate feelings of genuine desperation. “The Name of the Game” is almost too vulnerable for words. The sexual bluster of “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)” is a red herring. Behind the disco gloss, the song reeks of loneliness and depression, a prayer for someone to “chase the shadows away” and “take me through the darkness to the break of the day”. (It’s also about as Christological as they ever got). Perhaps they were more Scandinavian than we thought.
The secret to ABBA’s lasting popularity (or at least ubiquity) is that their relationship songs are more concerned with emotional truth than propriety or correctness. Listen to a later single like “One of Us”—the singer has left her lover, she’s got her own space now, but she is not happy. Late at night, when she can’t sleep, she knows she is lying to herself. If she could do it all over again, she wouldn’t have left. Such an admission may not sound like that of a ‘strong woman’, but it certainly sounds like that of a real one. Or their devastating “The Winner Takes It All”, which presents love in startlingly binary terms, acknowledging that, as one critic read the song, “a person should be able to have it all, but it’s just not possible.” In other words, ‘should’ and ‘is’ collide in the music of ABBA, and the results have enduring power.