Conceptually, Cher’s new album of ABBA covers may be the kitschiest, campiest gayest record since “The Ethel Merman Disco Album.” But — you may be wondering — does it hold anything beyond novelty appeal? It does. In fact, “Dancing Queen” is quite great and strangely compelling.
The legendary singer, whose career now spans five decades, remains in full voice and continues to record and tour widely. Her role in the recent “Mamma Mia!” sequel was her first live-action role since “Burlesque” (2010) with Christina Aguilera.
“Dancing Queen” follows on the heels of the “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” soundtrack release, but with a complete set of 10 ABBA covers. It’s Cher’s first release since her 2013 album “Closer to the Truth” and a notable change of pace. “Dancing Queen” features exclusively songs popularized by a different and likewise well-loved pop act.
Of course, there are plenty of obvious commercial reasons to explain the new album: The release of a major Hollywood movie, the crossover of two hugely successful acts and so on. But the more interesting question is not so much about the why but the what — what about Cher’s recordings is different from the ABBA originals? In terms of instrumentation, the tracks are almost unaltered, except for slightly heavier bass pulse on uptempo tracks like “Waterloo” and modified synth sounds. The difference can only really be summed up by the emotional tone the iconic singer brings to the four-decade-old songs.
If one listens to Cher’s album “Take Me Home” (1979), which was released the same year as ABBA’s “Voulez-Vous,” it’s not hard to see certain stylistic similarities between the two. ABBA’s title track pulses with disco dance floor energy, not unlike Cher’s titular single “Take Me Home.” And unsurprisingly, both albums are dominated by talk of youth, love and sex.
But what Cher brings to the covers is of a different order. It’s the sound of a major singer revisiting the past and it’s palpable in her voice. Take for instance the album’s titular song, “Dancing Queen.” Cher’s version is filled with a certain nostalgia absent from the original. It’s more reflective and soulful, almost as if the song has lost its innocence. There is an emotional force in the new recording that not only gives it new meaning but also makes one remember why the original is so great. It’s revitalized yet conveys a sense of longing — the dancing queen is not the pretty young girl in front of us, but instead her memory.
“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” works especially well in Cher’s distinctive lower register. It also features her trademark Auto-Tune sound, reminiscent of her 1999 single “Believe.” It works even better as a club track than the ABBA original. In “Waterloo,” Cher’s version again makes use of a heavier synth sound but is vocally more reminiscent of her rock period (think “If I Could Turn Back Time”).
The rendition of “Fernando,” which was quite well received in the movie, returns on the new album. The recording of “The Winner Takes It All” is particularly good. Cher’s opening is somber, almost tragic. And the lyrics seem to take on new meaning for the singer: “I’ve played all my cards/and that’s what you’ve done, too/nothing more to say/no more ace to play.” Yet as the music builds and the beat begins to pulse, there is no doubt about her power and resilience as a performer.
One might say the same of the album’s aptly chosen final track, “One of Us” from ABBA’s final studio album “The Visitors” (1981). Of all the tracks, this one departs the most from the original in terms of instrumentation. Over a sparse piano and string accompaniment, she delivers the famous first line: “They passed me by, all of those great romances.” And it’s every bit as enrapturing as the original, if not more.