I was really annoyed in 2008. the best movie I had ever seen – The Dark Knight – had been overshadowed in the box office by a large screen adaptation of some musical based on the hits of a bunch of singers from Sweden who had enjoyed the occasional success here and there in their time.
Three years later I was engrossed in the story of that same group of singers who had actually did a bit more than enjoy occasional success here and there. Abba as I grew to discover, are in the top five biggest selling pop acts of all time to be mentioned in the same breathe as Elvis, The Beatles and Michael Jackson. Like the group Bright Lights, Dark Shadows by Carl Magnus Palm is worthy of being mentioned among the best biographies written.
That I was so engrossed in the story of a group I didn’t pay that much attention to is credit to the brilliant writing skills of Carl. A biography after all is the story of a life and so although facts, details, interviews and statistics are all well and good, the deal is to be able to put them in the context of a compelling story. Otherwise you might as well just stick them in a spreadsheet and present findings in a geek manner to a board of bored directors. Carl realises the power of the narrative and invests this book with the keys to making it a riveting read from start to finish.
There are key themes that run throughout the book. Whether it’s the journey of self-discovery from Frida or the amazing tale of how Agnetha from a stable background aspiring to be a star, fulfilled her dreams only then to want to escape from the prying eyes of the ever inquisitive media. There is the Benny and Bjorn deal of establishing themselves as songwriters and producers recognised for their craft in a country that would belittle or do worse to their songs while they were at their heights and then only return the necessary acknowledgements years after the group had split up. That’s not to mention the crucial roles played by the love relationships between the two couples in the group – Benny and Frida as well as Bjorn and Agnetha.
These themes and more characterise the book and are skillfully interwoven by Carl to take us along the path to success that these four distinct individuals made. When you add the vital tale of Stig Anderson – the manager of the group and an influence often neglected or minimised in documentaries about the group – then this is a noble effort to make such a mammoth task into something that can be read by those interested. Carl structures these remarkably well. That he also paints the picture of the cultural context of the development of the individuals and the group is also further credit to the job that he does.
An example of the way Carl excellently uses the power of narrative to the book is early on when he tells the tragic love story of Frida’s parents. I recall reading the section that described the circumstances in which the parents met and subsequent developments and knowing it was a great piece of writing. I read it to a friend of mine and she ended up crying such was the power of the piece. That is an indication of how well a writer has done with his work. That’s just a sample of the way Carl has told his story very well.
The voice of the writer does not remain impartial or neutral throughout the piece. That becomes evident when analysis of the songs comes into play. The music reviewer in the author emerges and he is no sycophantic fan of everything Abba produces. He maintains his critical faculties to give his assessment of their work and will applaud and highlight good work when it emerges whilst also pointing out flawed works when they crop up. It is humorous to read of some of the post Abba material described as well produced, well structured and a little bit dull!
It is thoroughly and entertaining through the majority and there are a few rare lulls in it that don’t meet the standards of other areas of the book. In the main it is a great read and it is fitting that a group that made such an impact on the pop world has such a comprehensive biography that marks how they did that and showing that you don’t have to be born in America or Britain to have a fascinating story of pop to tell. Having read works on The Stones and The Beatles, as well as Queen and Elton John, I can confidently say that this work is right up there in the strata of great biographies. What elevates it to that status is how someone as unconcerned as me can get into the story and emerge all the more interested in the group and what they did.