The final song ever recorded by ABBA was arguably also their finest.
Many years after it was laid down in the studio, sound engineer Michael B Tretow recalled the session. He remembered Agnetha Faltskog recording her lone vocal track with the lights dimmed. On completing the final verse, she is said to have taken her headphones off before leaving the studio (and the band) quietly through the back door. This tantalizing image of things left unsaid, under a brooding shimmer fits perfectly with the song’s bald, bleak beauty.
It’s an interesting track in part because ‘The Day Before You Came’ totally breaks with the popular impression of the band as all showbiz smiles, massive harmonies, gaudy outfits and Scandi wife-swapping. ‘The Day Before You Came’ stands in totally opposition to a career that seemed to live off the maxim “more is better”.
Musically the track scuttles along like a slow heartbreak, sparsely painting its picture with the sole palette of a synth and Agnetha’s lone vocal. This is deceptive however, as there are layers of sonics beneath the smooth surface, suggesting so much going on under the skin.
On the surface the lyrics seem to reflect the timeline of a woman who is reminiscing on her mundane routine before she met her world changing lover. But a deeper probe suggests something a bit darker at the core. There was the working title of the song (‘The Suffering Bird’) , hinting at a prison like fragility. There’s the disorientating ambiguity of Agnetha’s words (“I’m certain…”, “I must have…”,”I’m sure,”) which suggest a zombie sleep walking through their life (“It’s funny, but I had no sense of living without aim/ The day before you came“) and hints at depression (“I need a lot of sleep“). There’s also the reference to her bedtime reading matter (“The latest one by Marilyn French or something in that style,”). Marilyn French was a radical feminist author who was infamously misquoted as saying: “all men are rapists.”
The most intriguing theory is that the protagonist is a ghost, who is eerily detailing the minutiae of her daily life before her murderer –the “you” of the title- ended her life. It might sound far-fetched but Frida and Benny’s celestial harmonies of the verse and the harmony (or is it shrieking?) of the middle eight certainly add kudos to this theory. It makes the ambiguity final line (“And rattling on the roof I must have heard the sound of rain / The day before you came“) a bit more chilling.
In a 2010 interview with The Times, Bjorn Ulvaeus was asked what happened after the man “came”. He said:
You’ve spotted it, haven’t you? The music is hinting at it. You can tell in that song that we were straining towards musical theatre. We got Agnetha to act the part of the person in that song. In retrospect, it might have been too much of a change for a lot of Abba fans. The energy had gone.
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It’s shame he took this view because their mastery of this Cold Wave keyboard sound suggests they could have seamlessly made the transition into the next decade, building on what they began with ‘The Day Before You Came’. As it is, the song is the ultimate tease, a door left ajar, a murder mystery with its final page torn out. Which arguably makes it all the more wonderful.