Unless you’ve been living under a rock — in which case, can I please join you? — you know that we’re living in the age of ABBA once again. This summer, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again dominated our little gay hearts and brought us Cher as Meryl Streep’s mother. Never mind that Meryl Streep said her mother was dead in the first film or that they’re only three years apart in age.
Capitalizing off of that cameo, Cher released an album of ABBA covers, Dancing Queen, which is also her twenty-sixth studio album. It’s almost unfair to review Queen because, given that it is an album of Cher covering ABBA, you probably already know whether you want to listen to it or not. But, here’s a snapshot of the album anyway.
The members of ABBA are known for being pure pop powerhouses, but not exactly for their powerhouse vocals, which makes Cher’s set of pipes an odd one to bring to the table. Cher often finds it hard to sing at anything lower than a belt, which can make the album opener, its title track, somewhat of a rough listen the first time around. But once you get past the first verse and chorus, Cher’s big-hair-big-pipes take on ABBA feels about right. She’s taken the disco legends into the realm of arena rock, and you can’t help but want to dance.
“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)”
As both Cher and Miz Cracker know, Cher pioneered the use of autotune in music, especially as an aesthetic choice rather than a crutch for someone who couldn’t carry a tune. Cher’s distinct use of autotune really works on “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” which feels both more fun and more poignant when sung by a woman in her early 70s. Did anyone ask for their ABBA with layers? No! Does Cher deliver it anyway? Yes!
“The Name of the Game”
A cover album’s biggest danger remains that too many tracks will just sound like Cher enjoying a night out at some Koreatown karaoke. But there are genuine moments on Dancing Queen where Cher feels like she’s altered the song enough to make it her own. One of those moments is “The Name of the Game,” which sees Cher trade in some of the song’s groove rock leanings for a decidedly dancefloor sound. At this point, you might be wondering if Cher’s answer to ABBA is to turn every track into an uptempo power ballad, and the answer is “Yes!”
You’ve already heard “SOS,” a song that Cher had released in anticipation of the album some weeks ago. This is one of the album’s more genuine karaoke-like moments, but it’s also damn fun.
Of all the transformations on the album, “Waterloo” might be the most drastic. From its opening pulsing synth, it’s clear that we’re solidly in Cher territory and that ABBA is in the rearview. (The jazz sax during the song’s infectious chorus reminds us that this is still a cover.) “Waterloo” is also probably the track that best suits Cher’s tendency to go for the non-subtle power vocal, given the level of emotion inherent in the song’s lyrics.
OK, here’s the surprise of the century. “Mamma Mia” might be one of Dancing Queen’s most downplayed tracks. Rather than amping up the song to Thunderdome, Cher takes a smaller approach to “Mamma Mia,” practically whispering some of the lyrics. Though the vocals are smaller, the tempo doesn’t lag, making this one of the most listenable songs on the album.
“Chiquitita” is queer rights, let me just say that. We’re lucky to live in a time where we get to hear Cher cover this song. I will say nothing negative about it — even if I do like the Christine Baranski/ Julie Walters version better.
Cher’s “Fernando” is the new standard for the song. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
“The Winner Takes It All”
Who could forget Streep’s rendition of this song, which she performs while clad in an amazing flowing coral scarf, as the climactic number in the first Mamma Mia! Or, you know, who could forget the original? Though the song has jumped many musical eras — released by ABBA in the early 80s, brought to Broadway in the 1990s, covered by Streep in the 2000s and now again by Cher in the 2010s — Cher makes it feel like it could sit among her late-1980s discography, a la “I Found Someone.”
“One of Us”
A lot of people may find their goodwill toward the album falter with this last song. Or, you might be on such a high that you welcome the downtempo switch. But, while Cher spends most of the album turning ABBA into a good time, she chooses to end on a somber note. The final song probably wouldn’t jar as much if Cher chose to sandwich it with a final act dance number — just like the original music did by appending “Waterloo” to its tracklist without it fitting into the narrative. Come on, Cher! Give ABBA another take!
So much in this world is terrible and in this near-apocalyptic trash hole we forlornly call 2018, Cher has offered us a lifeboat. Even if it is a lifeboat on the Titanic, get in it. And enjoy.