Danc­ing Queen

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Artist: Cher Pro­ducer: Mark Tay­lor La­bel: Warner Bros.

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 has 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 en­ginerevving-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 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 big­band 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 of its de­cep­tive mu­si­cal com­plex­ity, or 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 log jam 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, loveall-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 roy- al­ties. 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 most chip­per 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 most 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.

Il­lus­tra­tion by ROBERT RISKO

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