What The Beatles were to the sixties, so ABBA were to the seventies - that is, an unstoppable cultural force and ever producing hit machine that defined their decade in sound and image to the point that it's impossible to think of one without the other. The Beatles split as the seventies began, but ABBA remained relevant for the opening years of the new decade, though a definite chill had settled over their output. The playfulness of 'Dancing Queen' and 'Money Money Money' were a fading memory; reality had intruded into their art, and though they may have been all smiles on the cover, relations within the band had fractured and the emotional damage spilled out into most of their music from here on in. The Hawaiian shirts on the sleeve suggested a hot summer, but there's precious little warmth in 'The Winner Takes It All'.
In simple terms, the song charts a relationship breakdown, firstly from an earthbound perspective ("I don't wanna talk" confesses Anna-Frid, who then never shuts up for the entire song, "About the things we've gone through. Though its hurting me, now its history") to the ultimately cosmic viewpoint of the singer, (in this case, Agnetha and her "The gods may throw a dice, their minds as cold as ice. And someone way down here loses someone dear"). Though initially couched in terms of resignation, the lyrics point no the finger of blame; rather, the situation is framed in terms of playing the game of love by the accepted rules of behaviour but then being trumped by higher forces of destiny beyond control before ending by confronting her ex lover with almost a sporting handshake that acknowledges a game well played and a game well won. "The winner takes it all, the loser has to fall. Its simple and its plain. Why should I complain" - I simply cannot believe that Benny and Bjorn did not have their earlier 'The Name Of The Game' in mind when composing this: "What's the name of the game? Does it mean anything to you? What's the name of the game? Can you feel it the way I do?" 'The Winner Takes It All' can be seen as its sequel of sorts to this track, the flipside or outcome of the wide eyed girl asking about love and learning the hard way that rules are there to be broken, though lyrics aren't the whole story here.
Musically, 'The Winner Takes It All' opens with a simple piano motif backed by Agnetha and Anni-Frid's voices multitracked into celestial harmonies before building, ever building when the instruments add to the crescendo as the song progresses, speeding up like a quickening heartbeat and the despair in Agnetha's voice increases. Each chorus is sung with just that little bit more force and conviction than the previous as she tries to convince herself that her destiny is helplessly in the hands of superior forces, then trying to appeal to her lover's senses by raking over the ashes ("But tell me does she kiss like I used to kiss you? Does it feel the same when she calls your name?") before realising in the final reckoning that this is scant consolation for the hurt currently felt and the nagging doubt that maybe she herself is to blame: "I apologise if it makes you feel bad. Seeing me so tense, no self-confidence" - Agnetha stumbles over the 'con-fi-dence' in three distinct syllables of broken self pity that always make my spine tingle as we conclude by returning to the resigned quiet that opened it almost five minutes previous. Yes, 'The Winner Takes It All' runs for 4 minutes 54 seconds and charts a range of emotions that many novelists would have taken 100 pages to describe. 'Mamma Mia' (the musical) says considerably less in almost two hours. It's the same band, but 'The Winner Takes It All' is about as far from 'Dancing Queen' as you can get. Majestic, mature, heartbreaking, searingly honest and utterly superb - their greatest number one. By some margin.