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Who’d have thought that one of the most influential pop groups of all time would be releasing their first new album together a full 40 years after their 70s purple patch fizzled out with 1981’s The Visitors? I’d kind of thought it’d never happen, so as a huge ABBA fan myself I could scarcely be more pleased. And even if I can’t shake the feeling that none of the new songs quite scale the heights of their back-catalogue, this one has plenty of nostalgia value to be getting on with in the meantime: anthemic harmonies from ‘Thank You For The Music’ or ‘Happy New Year’, some ‘Chiquitita’ rhythmic background vocals, a splash of ‘Fernando’ snare roll, the undimmed magnificence of the Swedish accents…

Now I often associate ABBA songs with their interesting phrase-structure antics, so I was a little surprised to find eight-bar phrases thoughout, except for the three instances of that Elgar-esque melody (at 0:00, 3:21, and 4:48), each of which only takes half as long. They clearly can’t resist a bit of metric wrong-footing, though, because there are a half-dozen moments in the song where the final beat of a three/four bar is stressed to the point where it feels like a new bar’s downbeat instead, thereby effectively transforming a pair of three/four bars into a two/four bar followed by a four/four bar. You can hear this first under the word “on” at 0:21, then in similar situations at 0:40 (“hard”), 1:18 (“feel”), 1:37 (“reach”), 2:50 (“down”), and 4:40 (“down”).

And while we’re on the subject of fun rhythmic tricks, check out the reprise of the line “do I have it in me” during the final chorus section. You see, this phrase has appeared four times already (at 0:47, 1:44, 3:01, and 3:21), and so far the word “do” has always been placed on beat three, with the word “in” on the following downbeat. At 4:15, however, we get the words “do” and “in” on beats two and three respectively instead – a move, incidentally, that’s already been subtly pre-echoed in the piccolo/glockspiel response melody at 3:03.

Oh, and one little mixing query. Why is that tambourine so central and upfront in the mix? It doesn’t really make sense to me as a depth-perspective decision, because it therefore seems like it’s positioned a good few steps in front of the band, and indeed the vocals – almost like a concerto soloist! And the shaker’s not much better on the other simultaneously-released single, ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’. It just feels a bit distracting somehow, and I’d have preferred it at least panned a little off-centre, perhaps with a touch of ambience reverb or something to tuck it better into the mix texture.

Easy On me

by Adele

Imagine you’re in charge of Adele’s record company for a moment. (No need to drool like that, though.) You have an artist who’s delivered two of the most successful records of all time, who’s kept the public waiting six years for new material, and whose recent personal transformation has provoked something of a media frenzy in anticipation of her first new single. And let’s say you have the whole as-yet-unreleased album in front of you, and can pick any track as that first release. Do you choose a sure-fire hit song to maximise its sales? Or do you choose the least promising track you can get away with, knowing that the sheer scale of the publicity will likely break streaming records all on its own, thereby reserving the genuinely stand-out songs for when the novelty’s beginning to wearing off? If you, like me, are rather underwhelmed by ‘Easy On Me’, then let’s both hope they’ve selected the latter scheme…

Now, I complained bitterly about the quality of the tuning edits on the song 'Hello' (from Adele’s previous album), so I was delighted to hear much higher-quality work here in that respect, with far fewer audible pitch-processing artefacts. There is a slightly odd moment at 3:08, where it sounds like a pitch-slide up to the F note has been all but removed – it’s that tell-tale tonal sweep in the upper harmonics that gives it away. And, as on ‘Hello’, I do wonder why they couldn’t just have left the pitch sweep in there for more expression, especially when we’re already so far into the song. Is anyone really going to switch off the song at this point because of a pitch-slide? And even if they did, wouldn’t that listener’s song stream already count towards the charts by then anyway?

Even leaving that small moment aside, despite the better-quality processing, I do still think the producers have pushed the tuning too far. Just because you can nail everything to the pitch grid without incurring egregious processing side-effects, that doesn’t mean it makes sense from an aesthetic perspective, and I still shed a quiet tear for the emotional steam-rollering of one of the great voices of our time.

Still, on the plus side her vocal sonics are sounding better than I think I’ve ever heard them. I love her voice, but every mix I’ve ever heard of her has struggled to balance her breathy head-voice, her rich lower alto chest-voice, and her strident upper-register power. Either the airiness is sporadic, or the chest-voice has too much/little warmth, or some of the upper-register vowels lacerate your ear-drums at higher playback volumes. Here, however, everything is beautifully managed: the ‘air’ is super-consistent, the lower spectrum is always warm without any sense of bloating, and the power-notes still have plenty of edge and bite, but without ever crossing the line to ‘abrasive’. This is masterful vocal mixing, and an immediate contender for a place in my own personal referencing collection – as it probably should be on yours, if you’re at all interested in modern chart production!