Remember When: ABBA Bid Farewell with the Downbeat but Brilliant Album ‘The Visitors’

It’s natural to think of the Swedish popsters ABBA and hear in your head effervescent uptempo songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo.” Their music tends to easily elicit smiles. Yet as their intra-band marriages crumbled and the band started to go their separate ways, somber reflections on love’s mortality began to take over, especially on their 1981 album The Visitors.

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The Visitors would be the group’s final album until their 2021 reunion on Voyage. And although it might not have been what people expected from the quartet at the time, it might just be ABBA’s finest album on a song-by-song basis and in terms of sustaining a mood. Let’s take a look back at this sorrowful masterpiece.

The End of an Era

ABBA emerged from Stockholm, Sweden to become worldwide superstars in 1974 with the release of their Eurovision Song Contest-winning track “Waterloo.” They developed from there into one of the most successful collectives of the decade, cranking out gleaming pop singles with stunning regularity. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson wrote hooks like few acts since The Beatles, while Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad delivered the heart-on-their-sleeve lyrics with earnest beauty.

ABBA’s unique chemistry came in part from how they consisted of two married couples: Andersson and Lyngstad, Ulvaeus and Fältskog. As their success continued to rise, so did the demands on the four members, which created intense pressure on the marriages. By the time The Visitors was recorded, both marriages had ended within a span of the previous three years.

On top of that, Ulvaeus and Andersson began to feel like their creativity was being stifled by writing for ABBA. They harbored dreams of writing for the stage. Put that all together, and the sessions for The Visitors were a struggle, as the four members had lost much of the camaraderie that once bound them together. Lyngstad explained as much in an interview about the album.

“When you’ve gone through a separation, like all of us had done at the time, it puts a certain mood on the work,” Lyngstad said. “Something disappeared that was so fundamental for the joy in our songs, that had always been there before. … Perhaps there was a bit of sadness or bitterness that coloured the making of that album.”

An Unknowing End

When The Visitors was released in 1981, there was no mention of any kind of breakup. As a matter of fact, the band went back into the studio in ’82 to record some more. They didn’t finish enough songs to make up an entire album, however, and those tracks began to trickle out on various compilations and as singles.

ABBA simply stopped without any kind of announcement of a definitive severing. Lyngstad and Fältskog moved on to solo work, while Ulvaeus and Andersson realized their Broadway dreams by collaborating with Tim Rice on the musical Chess, a show that would produce the unlikely ’80s smash single “One Night in Bangkok.”

A Sad but Triumphant Farewell

Maybe if fans had known that The Visitors was indeed going to be a swan song, it would have been more decorated. As it was, the record seemed to baffle listeners looking for the old, happy ABBA. Even the sounds of the band were starting to change, as evidenced by the title cut and its icy New Wave.

But a deeper dive into the record reveals four people channeling their ache and frustration into mature yet still catchy songs about what’s left behind when love departs. The big hit “When All Is Said and Done” sees two people trying to come out the other side of a breakup with their heads and hearts intact. “One of Us Is Lying” wallows in the regret that often accompanies a broken relationship.

Ulvaeus and Andersson explored the collateral damage of divorce on the beautiful “Slipping Through My Fingers,” which depicts a parent’s guilt over not getting enough time with their child. On the mournful closing track “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room,” Lyngstad takes the solo lead—the absence of the girls’ trademark harmonies mirrors the isolation of the character. These are some of most piercing lyrics in the band’s catalog, as the narrator surveys her newly desolate existence and ruminates on the inevitability of her relationship’s dissolution: Love was one prolonged goodbye.

The Visitors would almost sound like the product of an entirely different band were it not for the voices out in front. As such, it is an outlier in the ABBA catalog. But it’s one well worth exploring, as the four members rallied together one more time for this eloquent, heart-rending therapy session of an album.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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