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The Triple A List, My Favorite Songs Ever One By One: Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All”

Into The Mythic

It is considered the ABBA divorce song, but it is really into the mythic as well. Composed and then written for Abba’s seventh album, Super Trouper, Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog had divorced in July 1979 and “The Winner Takes It All” was released exactly a year later. Clearly “about” Bjorn and Agnetha’s end, it was the true end of Abba. There would be one more album, chronicling Benny and Frida’s finishing but The Visitor is not a lot of fun at all, and Super Trouper is fun until it explodes in Greek tragedy break-up. A song with no heroes and no villains, all there is implacable gods staring on icily, while we, the audience, watch on in paralyzed despair.

It is Agnetha’s magnificence vocal, and her reading of it as entirely personal and as far from personal as can be reached. The verses are singer songwriter piano based confessional and then the chorus conflates into a world of misery, all misery, Agnetha and we are stuck together in a world of sorrow. She can’t get out of its way and neither can we while Björn’s cracked English barely holds together, “I figured it made sense building me a fence” is the wrong sound of the emotions, it is too cool for what is being presented because English is his second language.

The result of the English with a crack in it is to extenuate the way the song is a tragedy seen both near and from afar, it is entirely personal and completely objective: it is not for the pair but rather every break down which leaves nothing but an emotional scorched earth. It is a searing look at how we are our own myths, how are break ups have ramifications for the entire world because we are the mythic and the past is another planet.

ABBA’s odd use of English (think of “and I’m still free” on “Take A Chance On Me”) works so well here as the song ebbs in the verses and explodes on the chorus, with Frida joining. The song really doesn’t get to the reasons behind it. Apparently, she was left for another woman but understood it wasn’t done savagely (and because it can be lyrically clunking, “I was a fool playing by the rules,” both suggest infidelity and just from her compassion for her former partner, says otherwise.

Agnetha was a great singer, and she carries the song’s Shakespearian tragedy to its outer limits, it closes down a world and doesn’t build another. The Frida break-up on the following (and last) album, isn’t this: this has an immediacy that speaks to us from 40 years ago. It moves from heartbreak in the verses to an even worse heartbreak (the same, but bigger in scale) on the choruses which cascade downward in a rush of piano notes, Agnetha sings up, the piano moves down, the Greek chorus echoes, and then it fades till you can’t hear it anymore.

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