The Day Before You Came (1982, Single)

The final song ABBA recorded was released as a single – by then, mid-1982, not many cared, and “The Day Before You Came” struggled for chart attention. By 2010, when ITV ran a schedule-filling show called The Nation’s Favourite ABBA Song, only “Dancing Queen” and “The Winner Takes It All” rated higher. There is something about this long, strange, monotonous, chorus-free ABBA song which gets to people. Me too – when “The Day Before You Came” landed at #3 on that junk ITV chart I punched the air and yelled.

The conceit of “The Day Before You Came” is simple and could be rather sweet – Pulp used it on “Something Changed”, and I think a couple of other people have. It’s about trying to remember what life was like before you met your lover (OR IS IT HER LOVER) (let’s assume it is for now). The lyrics reconstruct a typical day – tentatively, because life has changed so much now the singer can hardly remember the her that used to be. She eats Chinese food, watches Dallas, smokes, hangs out with colleagues, and works enviably European hours. Then everything changes.

As I say, sweet maybe. Except as anyone who’s heard it would tell you “The Day Before You Came” isn’t sweet at all. It’s horrifying. Agnetha sounds bereaved – the world she’s left, and is singing about, is obviously beyond recovery, and there’s a longing in her voice sometimes as she recounts even the most banal details. And in case you think you’re imagining that, in place of the chorus there’s a series of ghostly choral howls, wordless cries filled with sorrow. This isn’t some accident, or a production trick gone wrong: the song was recorded with the lights out in the studio, and the mood was sombre. Because, as observers said, the group was ending and they all knew it? Surely, but the record they were making can’t have been blameless. They knew the effect they were going for.

So what on earth is going on here? Why does “You Came” seem to equate with emotional disaster? What is the nature of the catastrophe?

Is it violent? One song “The Day Before You Came” reminds me of is “Past, Present And Future” by The Shangri-Las, a stunning and horrible record that’s one of the most emotionally gut-twisting things in 60s (or any) pop. The singer in “Past, Present And Future” is traumatised, and fills a melodramatic girl group songform with her pain until the listener – or this listener, anyway – flinches. The Shangri-La’s song isn’t explicit about the nature of what’s happened, but is far more open about the shattering effects. I’m left fairly certain that what I’m hearing about is violence, quite possibly sexual violence.

Some people have speculated similar things about “The Day Before You Came” – is it a murderer, not a lover, who awaits the singer tomorrow? But while the song doesn’t completely close off this possibility it does nothing to encourage it. Unlike “Past, Present And Future” the song isn’t about after-effects, it’s about loss: an utterly ordinary lifestyle which turns out to be something worth mourning.

Why? Well, let’s remember what ABBA spend a lot of their late records singing about – and touched on all through their career: adult choices that turn out wrong (“One Of Us”, “Should I Laugh Or Cry”), and romance as a loss of independence (“Under Attack”, “Lay All Your Love On Me”). Falling in love, in ABBA-land, is a very high-risk activity indeed. And so it is here.

The key detail, for me, is the singer’s choice of reading: “The latest one by Marilyn French or something in that style”. In 1982 French hadn’t written many books, and her only famous one was feminist novel The Women’s Room, which became a blockbuster – it was on my mother’s bookshelf, and several of her friends. French’s book is about women’s independence and autonomy – hard-fought, worth celebrating, worth defending.

(When Blancmange covered “The Day Before You Came” in 1983 they changed “Marilyn French” to prolific, ultra-conservative UK romance novelist “Barbara Cartland”, probably the most tin-eared bit of lyrical adaption in pop history.)

So reading Marilyn French slots into the rest of the singer’s life and positions her in a way we immediately get – she’s an ordinary, professional woman, a feminist, and independent: she’s what “Hey Hey Helen” called “a modern woman of today”. And like in other ABBA songs, this is what she’s about to risk and lose – love as a threat to autonomy.

Which puts the other really important lines in a new light. “It’s funny, but I had no sense of living without aim / the day before you came”. I’ve seen an explanation of TDBYC which says, well, it’s sad because she’s remembering how boring and pointless her life used to be. And taken at face value that’s what these lines are pointing to. But Agnetha doesn’t sing them at face value – I think she sings them as a rebuke, her “without aim” more sarcastic than wide-eyed. Because who’s more likely to think a woman’s life is aimless before a man comes along – the woman or the man?

Is all this a stretch? Maybe – in other parts of the song the words point in happier directions – “without really knowing I hid a part of me away”. Anything’s a stretch with this record, which is what makes it so enduring and interesting. Lyrical analysis of pop can be a fool’s game, but here the music provides an answer and the words are a riddle – how do you get to how a record feels from what it says? Perhaps you can’t: feelings are complicated, and this is a pop song which feels ambiguous and complex like a person does, as high a compliment as you can offer.