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I Let the Music Speak

Anne Sofie von Otter

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Album Review

Although the breakup of ABBA in the early '80s did not, in fact, mean the dissolution of the songwriting team of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus that had come up with all of the group's songs and made up half of its personnel, people tend to think of it that way, an impression only reinforced by the worldwide success of the stage musical Mamma Mia! that employs ABBA songs, since Andersson and Ulvaeus insisted as a condition of their involvement that the songs by performed in their ABBA arrangements. There have been relatively few attempts to record the songs differently — Erasure's 1992 EP Abba-esque was one, but, more typically, the A*Teens tried to copy the original arrangements on their album The ABBA Generation in 2000. And there have been no attempts to consider Andersson and Ulvaeus as songwriters beyond ABBA, despite their continuing partnership, which has produced two original stage musicals and other songs, before and after ABBA. Opera singer Anne Sofie Von Otter changes all this with her collection of Andersson/Ulvaeus songs, I Let the Music Speak, which includes only six ABBA songs among its 12 selections (and one of them was not actually written for ABBA, though the group recorded it). She adds in songs from the musicals Chess and Kristina Från Duvemåla, as well as other songs by the duo up to 2001. (One song, "After the Rain," was written by Andersson with Johan Nörklit, without Ulvaeus' involvement.) The arrangements were written by Flesh Quartet, Anders Eljas, George Wadenius, and, in the case of "I Walk with You, Mama" (a lyric written by Ulvaeus set to Andersson's instrumental composition "Stockholm at Night," written for a late-'80s film), Andersson himself with bassist Svante Henryson. Andersson on piano joins Henryson for the track's instrumental accompaniment. They give the song a classical, art-song feel, which is consistent with the other arrangements. For the ABBA songs, Von Otter has mostly chosen late-period ballads like "When All Is Said and Done" and "The Winner Takes It All," as well as the last-ever ABBA song, "The Day Before You Came," and this is material that works well in a completely different context. Nor are the arrangements the same as each other, by any means. "I Let the Music Speak," with its accordion, sounds like a sad, mid-20th century European lament. "When All Is Said and Done" comes off as a country-ish folk-rock song. "I Am Just a Girl" (the ABBA song actually written before the group's formation for another artist) employs a banjo and a tuba in emulation of '20s jazz. Von Otter brings a warm sincerity (and, thankfully, no Swedish accent) to her singing of the English lyrics, while also handling the Swedish in the two songs from Kristina Från Duvemåla well. It is a crucial element in the continuing reputations of musical artists that their songs can be performed in different ways by musicians coming later. Von Otter does Andersson and Ulvaeus a great service in demonstrating the value of their songs as songs here, not just as vehicles for the elaborate ABBA studio recordings. And listening to such excellent compositions as "I Walk with You, Mama" and "Butterfly Wings," ABBA fans may appreciate that Andersson and Ulvaeus didn't disappear after 1982. (Although the album packaging lists only 11 songs, there is a hidden track at the end, ABBA's "Money, Money, Money.")

I Let the Music Speak, Anne Sofie von Otter
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