The tale behind the song: The Winner Takes It All

3 May

ABBA: The Winner Takes it All, back in the day when blue eye shadow was the answer to all ills

Continuing the seasonal Eurovision theme, here’s another of my Songscape articles, first published in 2006. ABBA continue to be the most famous Eurovision winners, 39 years – and yes, it does only seem like yesterday – since they stormed to victory in Brighton with “Waterloo”. Of their many subsequent anthemic ballads, “The Winner Takes it All” is probably the most poignant and enduring, due in no small part to Agnetha Fältskog’s beautiful vocal work. As she prepares to release an eagerly-awaited new album, A, here’s what I had to say about one of her hallmark numbers from the past.

The Winner Takes It All

The arrival of Mamma Mia in the West End in 2000 was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was a long overdue celebration of the song writing skills of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, demonstrating once and for all that ABBA’s success had been based on far more than 1970s glam and throwaway pop. On the other, it paved the way for a steady slew of shows similarly – and not particularly subtly – manufactured around the hits of other groups and singers.

But let’s accentuate the positive. ABBA’s songs were revealed in all their glory as beautifully constructed and deceptively simple tales of the different phases of love, written through the ebb and flow of the relationships between the two couples who comprised one of the most successful groups in pop history. And none more so than the searingly poignant 1980 number “The Winner Takes it All,” written at the height of their success when, ironically, both couples had already come adrift.

The song tells the story of a jilted woman, taking a sad, clear-eyed look back at a love affair now over, and casting doubt on her ex’s new relationship. Like so many ABBA songs, the melody at first seems almost elementary and even repetitive, rather like a familiar nursery rhyme. But it builds in cycles across four verses, climaxing in the third before returning to the initial air of melancholy resignation for the finale. Swedish in its sensibilities to the last, the song conceals any sense of reproach in the matter-of-factness of the lyrics. Events speak for themselves, but they speak volumes.

Agnetha Fältskog was the lead singer on the original version, and she later recalled the bittersweet irony of being in the studio and singing a number containing such apparently biographical references, alongside her former husband. Björn has always insisted that the song shouldn’t be taken as a literal exploration of their separation, but the accompanying video, with Agnetha acting her melancholy part to the full, only reinforced the atmosphere of private sorrow that informs the lyrics. “It was quite a while afterwards before I realised that we’d made a small masterpiece,” she said.

Agnetha today: back on top form with “When You Really Love Someone”

The ABBA signature sound – those intricate close harmonies between the two female singers, their distinctive individual timbres merging in a way that couldn’t be replicated with all the technology at hand in the modern recording studio – comes into its own in the chorus, helping to build the layers of experience in the story.

This might be one of the reasons why ABBA songs have been slow to find their way into the repertoires of other singers. They are tricky to master convincingly – which probably explains why they seldom turn up on television talent shows.

And yet the opportunity to explore the possibilities of lyrical interpretation should make songs like “The Winner Takes it All” a rich source of material, certainly for any singer looking for something more than the chance to render a karaoke version.

In Mamma Mia, of course, the songs are transplanted to suit a spurious storyline, and become the property of a different kind of singer. In the original cast recording it falls to Siobhan McCarthy to take on “The Winner Takes it All,” and prove that it is quite possible to reinvent such a quintessential ABBA number on your own terms. Without making it overly theatrical, she preserves the simple integrity of the lyric whilst injecting a note of strident anger that Agnetha. The song becomes a warning as much as a narrative.

Most recently, soprano Anne Sofie von Otter included the song on her wonderfully articulate and absorbing Ulvaeus/Andersson album, I Let the Music Speak. As you might expect, there is a sense of returning to Swedish introspection, but with the harmonies stripped utterly away, its Spartan quality becomes a powerful vehicle for the experience at the heart of the song.

Three of the Best

ABBA, ABBA Gold, 2004 compilation, Universal

Agnetha’s pure, searingly honest voice is at its best for a quintessential ABBA performance, including those unique harmonies with Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Its bleakness can still break your heart.

Original London Cast, Mamma Mia, 2000, Polydor

Siobhan McCarthy injects a soaring streak of venom as the song becomes part of the West End musical that started a never-ending trend.

Anne Sofie von Otter, I Let the Music speak, 2006, Deutsche Grammophon

An austere and thought-provoking version of “The Winner Takes it All” is one of the gems of what is effectively an Ulvaeus/Andersson song cycle.

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One Response to “The tale behind the song: The Winner Takes It All”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Album Review – Agnetha Fältskog: A | The Art of the Torch Singer - May 14, 2013

    […] huskiness only adds to the frisson which it generates, easily evoking the glories of the great ABBA harmonies and cutting through the arrangements like an old friend in remarkably good […]

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