The distance between the Voulez-Vous and Super Trouper albums cannot be measured just by the 19 months that separated the two releases. At the dawn of a new decade, ABBA stood at a crossroads – both creatively and as a working team. 1979’s news that Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog had split sparked alarm about the future of the world’s biggest pop group.
Super Trouper’s lead single – the classic ballad “The Winner Takes It All,” released in the summer of 1980 – likely did little to allay those fears, even though Björn denies that the track is autobiographical. Behind the scenes, however, as recording for the album was in full swing, Benny Andersson and Frida Lyngstad’s own marriage had also hit trouble, with a separation already in place as the LP first hit the shops, on November 3, 1980.
Their personal lives aside, the music scene had moved on too. Disco was on the slide, particularly in the US, where the ABBA phenomenon had never properly caught light, and Europe was increasingly in thrall to the mannered theatrics of new wave. ABBA’s response was to pare back the party. It really was time to call that cab after the euphoric rush of Voulez-Vous.
Across a tight 10 tracks, Super Trouper is like a greatest hits sampler, showcasing all the styles that made the group so successful. “The Winner Takes It All,” regularly voted the people’s favorite ABBA record, and a Top 10 hit in every major market, is the ballad that they never truly bettered. Drenched in pathos, it featured Agnetha’s greatest vocal performance and has been claimed as her favorite ABBA track.
The ballads dominate the album. “Happy New Year,” once earmarked for wide single release until the title track emerged, is a melancholic choker that effortlessly captures that messy moment when the clock strikes midnight. “Our Last Summer” again bathes us in a sentimental haze of melancholia; no one does happy-sad songs as well as ABBA, and the schlager foundations underpinning so much of their work are very evident here.
On “Super Trouper,” the last track to be recorded, but released as the album’s second single, the band’s classic European pop sound found its latter-day peak. In the UK, it proved to be their ninth, and final, chart-topper to date.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The exuberant roar of the dance classic “Lay All Your Love On Me” showed the band still knew how to get us out of our seats. This ahead-of-its-time anthem topped the Billboard dance charts and still fills floors to this day. Lighter fare such as “Andante Andante” and “Me And I,” meanwhile, proved that the standard album material ABBA produced remained leagues ahead of the competition.
Live track ‘The Way Old Friends Do,” lifted from their 1979 tour, closed Super Trouper and, in many ways, sums up the mood of the record. With personal and professional turbulence surrounding them, the four-piece retrenched into a safe place – focusing on simpler pop sounds familiar to the faithful. In time, the urge for experimentation would return but, for now, they remained content to be fixed in the spotlight that gave the album its name… just as long as the beam was a bit dimmer.
After all, it had been one hell of a party…