Ah, the fascinating polarity that is the covers album. Occasionally, they’re incredible: Bowie’s Pin Ups, Joss Stone’s The Soul Sessions, or more recently, Ryan Adams’ rocky reimagining of Taylor Swift’s 1989.
More often than not, they’re abysmal. Think every album cobbled together for the poor Susan Boyle, or any number of talent show winners.
Let’s get one thing straight. With Dancing Queen – Cher’s TWENTY-SIXTH studio album and her first entirely of covers – the icon isn’t attempting to push artistic boundaries. As such.
If she’d approached this collection of ABBA re-recordings with the seriousness of, say, George Michael on the excellent Songs From the Last Century, she’d have been in big trouble.
Instead, Dancing Queen is about fun, entertainment, dizzy abandonment. She knows how to please a crowd, while also acknowledging the desires of her die-hard fans.
It’s also about reintroducing some of these songs to the casual ABBA listener, of which there are many in the US. (Only four of their singles ever reached the top 10 there.)
Music snobs will try and dismiss Dancing Queen as tacky, disposable rubbish. Most without actually listening to it, of course. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s actually a razor sharp concept here, a sort of ‘nostalgia squared’, the genesis of which is plain to see. The idea came to Cher herself, she says, after she rediscovered ABBA’s back catalogue while filming this year’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
As such, you’ll no doubt be familiar with her booming, yearning take on Fernando, the essence of the movie. You might also have heard the album’s powerhouse first single Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight), plus the broadly similar, recently-released SOS.
Dancing Queen is simply an extension of these ideas. And what an extension. The title track opens the album, that piano glissando and the angelic ‘aahs!’ in the background pretty similar to the original, save for clearer, sharper production. Then Cher starts singing. It’s a wall of sound.
No joke, when I heard her belt out that first line – ‘YOU can dance!’ – I jumped. Her vocal is utterly arresting, rising above countless (probably digital?) instruments and backing harmonies to command your attention.
This is no mean feat, given these songs are typically performed by two people. Anni-Frid’s underrated mezzo was always a crucial counterpart to Agnetha’s soprano, but Cher’s personality is big enough to make up for the subtraction.
Of course, she has some help. Vocoder is applied liberally, particularly on Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!, SOS and Mamma Mia itself. At the climax of The Winner Takes It All, it reaches new levels of ridiculousness. But I don’t care.
Some mistake Cher’s penchant for processed vocals as a matter of reliance rather than stratagem. (A recent think-piece called Cher’s Glorious Cyborgification of ABBA makes the case for the latter). When, actually, she doesn’t need a machine to make her voice sound good. She just does it for fun.
‘Chiquitita is one of the loveliest and least theatrical moments on the album’
She proves this point on Chiquitita, one of the loveliest and least theatrical moments on this album. Here, Cher sings softly and elegantly around an acoustic guitar, as she reaches out to a struggling friend. I’m always a sucker for songs about friendship, and Cher’s made me reassess what a beautiful song this is.
She meanwhile channels a vulnerability so hushed on The Name of the Game that I barely recognized her voice. In fact, I had to check it wasn’t a guest artist. She’s also soft and exposed on track 10, one of the few true surprises on the album, previously teased on Twitter in typical Cher style as ‘!?’
The song is in fact One of Us, a sad, second-tier ABBA song released at the tail-end of their heyday. A slow, low key closer, Cher bows out with a solid, elegant vocal, tempering the flamboyance of some of the earlier tracks. It’s a wise move, and one that saves the record from being oversaturated in camp.
I would love for Cher to release an album of original material next. But for now, hers is a gloriously smoky, husky voice that sounds good singing anything, and these are near-perfect pop songs. Oh, and she’s taking them on tour. Really, what’s not to love?
Dancing Queen is out 28 September