David Bowie’s new album remains a delightful surprise, but this year brings the return of an even more mysterious pop legend. Agnetha Fältskog, the blonde-haired, bell-clear voice of Abba, is back with a new solo album.
It’s simply called A – a title befitting her status – and it’s Fältskog’s first collection of original material in more than 25 years. Her last album, 2004’s My Colouring Book, featured covers of 1960s pop hits, and only die-hard fans held out hope of hearing anything new. In recent years, the reclusive singer has been dubbed the “Greta Garbo of pop”.
My Colouring Book sold a creditable 500,000 copies worldwide despite Fältskog’s reluctance to promote it. A publicity trip to the UK was scheduled for the week before that album’s release, but got cancelled at the last minute, reinforcing the singer’s enigmatic image. According to legend, Agnetha Fältskog had been a reluctant superstar, and once Abba’s decade of hit-making ended in 1983, she chose to retreat to a remote Swedish island.
This picture becomes even more fascinating when it’s embellished with the singer’s apparently chequered romantic history. Fältskog’s seven-year marriage to her Abba band mate Björn Ulvaeus crumbled in 1979 at the peak of the group’s popularity, and her second marriage, to a Swedish surgeon called Tomas Sonnenfeld, also ended in divorce.
Towards the end of the 1990s, Fältskog embarked on a two-year affair with Gert van der Graaf, an obsessive Dutch fan some 16 years younger than her. After they split, Graaf turned into her stalker and a restraining order was issued against him – though reportedly, he hasn’t always adhered to it.
In recent years, Fältskog has made the odd public appearance in Sweden and Denmark to promote Mamma Mia!, the phenomenally successful stage musical based on the songs of Abba. When Mamma Mia! was made into a film starring Meryl Streep, Fältskog attended the Swedish premiere and happily posed for photographs with her former band mates.
If anything, these occasional glimpses of Fältskog have heightened her mystique.
A contributing factor to her retreat from public life, though, has been Fältskog’s fear of flying. The singer became an increasingly anxious passenger during Abba’s globetrotting heyday, especially after the birth of her two children in 1973 and 1977. Following a terrifying 1979 flight from New York to Boston, when the band’s private jet flew straight into a tornado, these nerves hardened into full-on phobia. For many years afterwards, Fältskog avoided airplanes altogether – on one occasion, she even made the journey from Sweden to the UK by road.
She’s recently begun to fly again following sessions with a therapist. But these sessions don’t offer a complete cure: Fältskog says a three-and-a-half hour flight is as much as she can stomach.
As she turned 60 in 2010, Fältskog seemed comfortable in a state of near-retirement: happy to support Abba’s legacy with occasional public appearances, but under no compulsion to add to her own. She’s admitted she didn’t really expect to make another album, and left to her own devices, My Colouring Book could have remained her final recording.
But then fate intervened in the form of Jörgen Elofsson, a Swedish music producer who’s crafted hits for Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson. At the start of 2011, Elofsson turned up on Fältskog’s doorstep on a mission to coax her back into the recording studio. He came armed with three new songs he’d written for her.
It seemed like a long shot, but Fältskog says she was “flattered” by Elofsson’s efforts, and proved surprisingly receptive to the idea of making a comeback. “I just couldn’t say no. I really loved the songs from the beginning,” she recalled during a recent interview with the BBC.
But she did have one reservation. Because she hadn't sung in such a long time, Fältskog was worried she may have lost her range, and told Elofsson she didn't want to release anything if she sounded "old". In a bid to restore her voice to its former glory, she even took singing lessons, which must have been nerve-racking for her poor vocal coach: imagine telling the woman who sang The Winner Takes It All that she's sounding a little off-pitch today.
But the singing lessons evidently worked and Fältskog recorded a full album with Elofsson and his co-producer Peter Nordahl between January and October last year. The result, A, is due for release internationally on Monday.
That’s smart timing from Fältskog’s label. Just last week, the world’s first Abba museum opened in Stockholm, once again piquing interest in the ever-popular four-piece, who’ve now sold an incredible 370 million records worldwide.
It would be a stretch to call Fältskog's comeback album a triumph, but A is frequently affecting and has plenty of charm. Though Elofsson is known for writing contemporary electro-pop hits such as Kelly Clarkson's Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You), he never tries anything too trendy with Fältskog. A is a classic-sounding pop album filled with sad love songs that recall The Carpenters and Dusty Springfield.
These range from such string-draped ballads as Past Forever and I Was a Flower to toe-tapping midtempo tracks like Perfume in the Breeze and the knowingly titled Back On Your Radio. Fältskog remains firmly in her comfort zone throughout, though there are a couple of small surprises.
Take That singer Gary Barlow joins Fältskog for a touching duet called I Should’ve Followed You Home, and Dance Your Pain Away is a gloriously cheesy slab of 1970s-style disco. It’s more Boney M than Giorgio Moroder, and Fältskog really drives home the timeless message. “Lock your tears inside and show some pride,” she sings stridently. “Dance the pain away.”
Fältskog is in strong voice throughout – she needn’t have worried about sounding “old” – and often brings dignity to lyrics that look melodramatic on paper. “The day he said goodbye / All you wanted was to lay down and die,” she sings on When You Really Loved Someone. From Fältskog, that’s a pretty powerful couplet, but a less restrained singer could have made it horribly hammy.
More remarkable than the actual album, though, has been Fältskog’s willingness to promote it. In recent weeks, she’s appeared on TV in Sweden and elsewhere, and given a series of candid press interviews. “I have been described as a very mysterious human being and that hurts a little bit, because it’s not like that at all,” she said in one of them. “I’m very earth-grounded and very normal. I just like to stay at home.”
Last Saturday, Fältskog even appeared onstage at a London nightclub at 12.30am to greet fans and collect a superstar-sized bouquet. She declined to sing, but from the so-called “Greta Garbo of pop”, just turning up was more than enough.
Nick Levine is a regular contributor to The Review.