tremble clef

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Blancmange, "The Day Before You Came" (1984)

If it's not the best, "The Day Before You Came" is certainly among ABBA’s ten greatest songs. And given that this is ABBA we're talking about, that's saying a helluva lot. (Ten? Let's see. "One Of Us," surely, and "Slipping Through My Fingers" never fails to give me the vapors. Then there's "Super Trouper" and "The Winner Takes It All," and maybe "Chiquitita." "Fernando." Oh, "Take A Chance On Me," definitely. "S.O.S."? Sometimes I think "Mamma Mia" if only for the glorious way it bursts into the "blue, since the day we parted!" bit. "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room." "Lay All Your Love On Me" or "On and On and On"? And what about…oh, this is too hard.)

John over at Lost in the 80s recently placed the song in the context of ABBA's illustrious (though, as he notes, not illustrious enough in the US) career. As one of two singles the band released as bridges from the Super Trouper album to the swansong that was The Visitors, "The Day Before You Came" is usually taken as ushering in the band's final adult, largely depressed phase (even if we recognize the melancholy that was already inherent in middle-years songs like “Knowing Me, Knowing You”).

Indeed, "The Day Before You Came" is an incredibly morose song, even though it is in some ways not supposed to be. If the track, like some Chantal Akerman film, details the narrator's mundane and even mind-numbingly staid life before her lover comes, it nevertheless seems to promise an impending change, or indeed be narrated from that happy point in the present. At some moment, he came. Love was just around the corner. And yet, the sweet inevitability of that change somehow doesn't mitigate against how bleak and despairing the song sounds.

The reason for this no doubt lies in one word of the lyric, the one word that's repeated fifteen times. The word, as you may have guessed, is "must." The narrator's entire day, from morn till night, is catalogued entirely with a series of them: "I must have gone to lunch at half past twelve or so." "At five I must have left, there's no exception to the rule." "And turning out the light, I must have yawned and cuddled up for yet another night." Although we could consider the word as an imperative, it is far from commanding in its effect. The English language does not allow many grammatical moods; some linguists suggest, for instance, that it doesn't have the dubitative, which, as its name implies, permits a speaker to express doubt.

But in "The Day Before You Came," these Swedish songwriters seem to be utilising exactly that grammatical mood, coupling it with the past tense. The effect is of doubt -- specifically, doubt because the statements are only arrived at through inference and deduction. Even though our narrator tells us exactly what she must have done on that otherwise ordinary day, she only knows this because these are the things she's always done. She relies here not on actual memory, but on, as the song says, the "matter of routine." The lyric is in fact littered with qualifiers. Sometimes they're explicit: "I must have left my house at eight, because I always do." More often, the qualifiers are silent, only implied: "I must have opened my front door at eight o'clock or so. I must have, since I always do, though I don't actually remember doing so." The picture the song paints is of someone going through the motions: she robotically does this, and then she does that. In its final few lines, the song can admit this more explicitly -- "It's funny, but I had no sense of living without aim, the day before you came" -- and, to some extent, we comprehend the story from certain lines. But the dubitative mood is, I think, the most underappreciated and quietly stunning way ABBA uses to paint the portrait.

In the end, that's why the song is so moving, with its subtle detailing of a person sleepwalking through her life, never knowing that she was waiting for something until it comes. The only way she knows she's alive, is because she must be. There's really no other proof. And perhaps, even when a change comes, and even while love's arrival makes her happy, it also has the effect of making her see just how sad and empty her former life had been. I never knew, until I met you...and this knowledge, somehow, is a terrible thing. The day he comes can therefore only be, at best, a bittersweet one.

Since ABBA's masterpiece is still up at Lost in the 80s, I'll post instead Blancmange's version. I remember Smash Hits raving about it, but Neil and Stephen's track is disappointingly or wisely (depending on your perspective) a fairly straightforward cover. (I like Blancmange, though, and may someday do a post in which I talk, imagine this, about them.) Actually, I have two versions for your edification. When it was first recorded for the now-deleted Mange Tout album, the song was 5:57 (i.e., seven seconds longer than ABBA's). When Blancmange released it as a single, it was edited down -- mostly by speeding up the song and fading out hurriedly once the last verse ends -- to 4:24 for a 7 inch version, but extended out to 7:58 for the 12 inch. The abbreviated version isn't horrible: the quicker pace perhaps conveys that our automaton of a narrator is not only leading a meaningless life, but a hectic one. The much rarer 12 inch version, on the other hand, features a long tabla passage, courtesy of Pandit Dinesh (alongside some forlorn West End Girlish horns), that perhaps mimicks the sound of rain on the rooftops that the lyric ends with. Listening to it, you might be transported into the narrator's bedroom, as he numbly tries to fall asleep without letting his subconscious knowledge about the sadness of his life creep into his mind.

7 Comments:

  • Do we know that the day that the narrator is remembering is one on which she's largely alone? I've always been puzzled by the line "I must have yawned and cuddled up for yet another night" -- do people cuddle up by themselves? -- and wondered whether it was a portrait of either Bjorn's or Benny's lifeless robotic marriage.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:33 PM  

  • That was me, sorry.

    By Anonymous esque, at 8:33 PM  

  • It would be too weird for the narrator to already be with the lover in the song, I think. Surely she would have mentioned that it was Chinese food for two. It's possible for someone alone to cuddle up, I would think; it's cuddling that's tough. (Plus, perhaps she is cuddling a stuffed toy or a spare pillow, as the lonely are wont to do. Maybe even Frenching the pillow, pretending with desperate mounting panic that it is someone, anyone. Erm, not to speak from experience or anything.)

    By Blogger Brittle, at 9:46 PM  

  • Feh, with that Blancmange version!

    Just kidding - great point about the use of "must" and its modifiers. I like to think that life is now so good for the narrator that she can't even be bothered to recall her former drudgery.

    By Blogger John, at 12:29 AM  

  • God, that 12" version is fantastic!

    I think you're right, Brittle, that "cuddle up" could work without implying "cuddle up to someone." I didn't mean to imply, however, that the narrator was already with the lover in the song -- rather, that she was already with someone who bored her so much that, now that she is with the new lover, the former person doesn't register at all anymore.

    I'm also totally confused by the original video -- the guy at 2:15 isn't the same guy she sees at the station at the beginning of the video, is it?

    Finally, you're right to say that an ABBA pick-only-ten is too hard. I'm really frustrated at my list so far: The Name Of The Game, Bang-A-Boomerang, If It Wasn't For The Night, When All Is Said And Done, Voulez-Vous, On And On And On. Under Attack, Lay All Your Love On Me, Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!, Lovelight

    By Anonymous esque, at 2:49 AM  

  • John, you mainly can't forgive Blancmange for the way they dissed Marilyn French.

    esque, I know! That video makes my head hurt. Is it the same guy on the train and in the garage? His hair is parted the same way, but seems lighter. And why is he behind glass? Is he also the one in the porn shots? I think I have to watch my higher-quality ABBA Gold DVD to make sure. Best I can do is to interpret the whole video as some sort of Sliding Doors fantasy. He's the one for me! No, he missed the train and we never meet! Except that in our real lives we did meet and had a sucky boring life, and he's in reality always leaving me to go on long businness trips! Also, I'm sometimes in a band with two bears and another woman! Wha?

    I must also say that the way Agnetha looks at the guy on the train and the platform is a wee bit too fuck-me-now for my taste.

    Top 10: oh, yes, "Name of the Game"! I really like "When All Is Said And Done" too, but always think that it's a beat too slow to be as perfect as it could be. You could say the same of "One Of Us," though.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 1:22 PM  

  • Is there any way to make the Blancmange Remix mp3 available again, please?
    I jsut discovered your blog and really dig your commentaries on each song. Trying to be an ABBA completist is hard sometimes when you don't know of all the covers...

    Many thanks,
    R.

    By Blogger rabbit1970, at 7:54 PM  

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