von Otter does ABBA

As much as I love ABBA, I’m not precious about their work. I’m okay with people recording cover versions and, although I sometimes compare them with the originals, I really enjoy it when people interpret the works in new and different ways. Although I’m not a great fan of the heavy metal covers, I quite liked the indie covers and I really loved the Nils Landgren compilation, “Funky ABBA”.

And so I guess in reviewing this CD, I should turn my attention to the songs I know best, such as one of my all time favourite songs, “The Day Before You Came”, which has been interpreted varyingly as a song about a woman totally in control of her life and that of a woman who lacked control until a man delivered it to her. Although Agnetha’s original version captures all of the fragility of the latter (sounds like she could have been on prozac before it was invented), this version captures some of the rawnress of the former, with a certain menacing quality in both the orchestration (with its liberal use of violins) and the way in which it’s sung.

There’s also a menacing quality in Anne Sofie’s version of “Money, Money, Money”, though I thought her interpetation lacks the authenticity of Frida’s original vocal. When Frida sang it, you genuinely believed she meant it, unlike Anne Sofie. She sings it beautifully, but I don’t think she feels it.

On the accompanying DVD Media Kit, she tells us how she loves the work – “very few composers have touched me in the way that Benny Andersson’s songs have” – but while she sings beautifully, she hits all the notes, sometimes I just didn’t believe she believed the lyrics she was singing. I also thought her version of “Heaven Help My Heart” (from Chess) lacked some of the authenticity of Elaine Paige, but nonetheless she sings it beautifully.

Another personal ABBA favourite is “When All Is Said & Done”, sung originally by Frida, and widely regarded as Frida’s “divorce song” with a lyric describing a couple who’ve decided to separate, but who nonetheless get together for one final occasion, to celebrate what was good about their relationship.

“Heres to us one more toast and then well pay the bill
Deep inside both of us can feel the autumn chill”

Unfortunately, Anne Sofie & Co have turned this into a piece of MOR schlock, losing all of the drama and passion of the original sung by Frida… or even the version of Nils Landgren’s “Funky ABBA”.

“In our lives we have walked some strange and lonely treks
Slightly worn but dignified and not too old for sex”

Lots of passion in that lyric, though sadly lacking on the CD. I was also a little disappointed with “I Am Just A Girl” which sees Anne Sofie take on a vocal style half way between Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”. I understand she’s trying to convey a sense of irony, but I thought even the irony lacks authenticity.

The less familiar songs are the ones which probably work best, such as “I Walk With You, Mama” and “Butterfly Wings”. She’s at her best when she interprets the more classically inspired (and more recent works) of Benny Andersson, especially the works more simply arranged, such as Ljusa Kvällar Om Varen (from Kristina), which has a lovely jazzy feel to it.

I absolutely adore “I Walk With You, Mama”, a new version of an instrumental piece released by Benny in 1989 called, “Stockholm By Night”. The new and heartfelt lyric, written by Bjorn, concerns the difficult, formerly estranged relationship between mother and child. Tremendous stuff!!

I also really loved the lushness of some of the more recent Benny Andersson compisations including “Ut Mot Ett Hav” (from Kristina) and the simplicity of “After The Rain”. Very much in the style of the original “Efter Regnet”, I love all the minor chords. Here, Sofie is really in her element.

If one were to combine the best bits of both, the best of ABBA, and the best interpretation, the best song on the CD, in my view, is the title track, “I Let The Music Speak”, a little known ABBA song recorded for “The Visitors”, their final complete CD. As an album, it’s one you either love or loathe, as the group began to experiment with the pop form before they said goodbye to that part of their life.

So I guess what I’m saying is this CD is a mixed bag with both moments of brilliance and mediocracy. The mediocre moments are where she sings ABBA songs, though without the authenticity and passion of the original. The best moments are where she captures the essence, especially the sadness of so many of Benny Andersson’s works.

“I Let The Music Speak” by Anne Sofie von Otter, released through Deutsche Grammophon.

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