For anyone feeling like the time-honored art of stunt casting has gotten a little bit lost lately, what a breath of fresh-enough air it was to witness Cher’s small and yet somehow Godzilla-size cameo in the closing reel of “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again.” Her Grandma has so little to do with the plot (such as it is) that it wouldn’t affect any narrative strand the slightest bit if you snipped her entire role. And — it probably goes without saying — who would want to do that? Apart from the fact that the sight of Cher in a white wig is the best excuse anyone could think of to cue up “Now we’re old and gray, Fernando,” she is plenty life force to provide a climax for any occasion. Indeed, you might have to go back to Frank Sinatra’s inexplicable walk-on at the end of “Cannonball Run II” to see another icon so commandeering an apex with what looks like a day’s work.
Of course, Sinatra was not able to keep the goodwill of his cameo alive by recording an entire album of engine revving-themed songs. Cher was much better positioned to have a post-shoot eureka moment and go all ancillary on us, as she has with “Dancing Queen,” a collection that includes and builds on her filmic “Fernando” moment with nine additional ABBA covers. Faithfulness is the name of the game, as producer Mark Taylor appears to have spent less time thinking about whether to even slightly retool ABBA’s vintage arrangements than the time it takes to read this sentence. It’s sheer Cher-aoke, with an extreme fealty that gives this album even less of a clear reason for being than her “Mamma Mia 2” takeover. Yet it may bulldoze you anyway, just as Grandma bulldozes everyone in the movie’s digitalized Grecian dusk. At least it will if you’re inclined to think that Cher was an important figure in 20th-century pop and ABBA has a song catalog that stacks up against anybody’s from the 1970s and early ’80s. (We do all agree on these things, right?)
So it ain’t “Nilsson Does Newman,” but it’s not “Cybill Does It … to Cole Porter” either. Nor is it one of Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook albums, and perhaps we should thank Cher for being one of the few middle-of-the-road-leaning icons of her generation not to give in to a big-band standards trip. The Great Swedish Songbook is a thing too, and despite ABBA’s world-clobbering success, the group’s oeuvre has never been overly mined for covers … perhaps because it was never taken as seriously in America as in the rest of the world. (Even the “Mamma Mia” theatrical and cinematic juggernauts haven’t completely brought ABBA due respect; the group’s legacy still appeals to folks at the very top and bottom of the hipness scale, with lots of lingering suspicion in the cred-conscious middle.)
Erasure broke the logjam with an ABBA-esque covers EP in the early ’90s, and a few other brave souls on the edgier side have done their live or studio homages, from Elvis Costello to Sinéad O’Connor. But it makes poetic sense that the deep dive has been left up to someone else who’s a bit of a zillionaire underdog. The group doesn’t need a Ryan Adams-style legitimization, as he did with Taylor Swift’s “1989.” It needs a senior superstar who can sing about a 17-year-old “Dancing Queen” without a hint of irony and sound slightly sad doing it.
Every major pop diva worth her salt has two faces: the dance-floor-facilitating, moderately EDM-embracing, love-all-my-gays side, and then the noble tragedian side. The ABBA catalog certainly affords Cher plenty of opportunity to dig into either of those. After opening with the title track, the singer moves right along to “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” which has ever so subliminally more of an electronic throb than the original. It might be a song about a lonely woman’s desperate isolation, but it’s probably going to be big enough on the club scene that ASCAP may need to hire extra enforcers in West Hollywood just to make sure the discos are paying their proper royalties. ABBA may have provided the most joyous sugar rush of the mid-’70s with early hits like “Waterloo,” but there was an undercurrent of melancholy to almost all of them; even “Mamma Mia,” arguably the chipper-est pop smash this side of “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?,” has a narrator who’s “angry and sad” about the door-slamming partner she just can’t quit.
Benny and Björn quit Frida and Agnetha eventually — or vice versa — and all that divorce tension started being reflected in the mood and melody of the songs as well as the verses. Cher doesn’t delve unnecessarily into ABBA’s beautifully bummer-iffic final act, but she does save the two big weepers for last — “One of Us” and “The Winner Takes It All,” the latter of which is one of the towering pop songs ever. This was the time by which Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus stopped being “great for English as a second language” and started being just great. In fact, I’d put “Winner” up against just about any majestically bitter power ballad ever written. These are passive-aggressive classics where it’s impossible to tell if the men in the group were writing from their own POV or what they thought their future ex-wives must be feeling.
Cher could surely relate, if she cared to, to the ABBA saga; she soldiered on with Sonny on TV after their divorce, just as this foursome tried to for a while. It could all just be ear candy to her too, for all we know, but these closing tearjerker stories bring out the natural sob in her vibrato and remind us that Cher has been a terrific, emotive singer as well as fashion history’s most stupendous headdress delivery system.
You can enjoy the album and still wish that producer Taylor had done more to put a new or distinctive signature on this time-honored material. Well, actually, he adds one trademark touch fairly often: The overt AutoTune phasing that made his collaboration with Cher on 1998’s “Believe” so memorable returns here any number of times. She even has one of those moments of sounding like she’s turning into a computer program on the fadeout of “Winner Takes It All,” which is not a song where you’re thinking: Send in the bots. But it doesn’t ruin the track. On a record where sometimes the only thing differentiating the covers from the originals is her voice being lower and less impossibly pure than Frida’s and Agnetha’s in their prime, the little AutoTune asides are Cher additionally marking her territory. No need for that, really. Her force of personality is the stamp, and decades after everyone in ABBA more or less retired, we know who the super trouper is.
Warner Bros. Records
Producer: Mark Taylor