Slipping through my fingers

I knew I was sticking my neck out several weeks ago when I admitted to being a closet Abba listener. Now I will go even further, devoting an entire post to a new song of theirs I discovered last week. New to me, at least; it’s actually been around a quarter of a century, and it’s the first song that succeeded in reducing me to serious tears in a very long time.

Practically unknown following its late release in 1994, the much under-rated Slipping through My Fingers is a song about loss, specifically, a father’s loss of his daughter, who is growing up quickly – a daughter he has failed to appreciate and is now about to lose. It is the only Abba song that is unquestionably 100-percent autobiographical (although many of their songs do seem to form a narrative reflecting their lives, especially the two couples’ divorces). This is Bjorn’s agonizing admission that by being a workaholic who made a conscious choice to spend his time at the recording studio and on the road to pursue his musical and financial ambitions, he allowed his marriage to deteriorate. His wife, who chose home and family over career, “slipped through his fingers” with his daughter.

I don’t have any children, but I have experienced intense and painful loss. Just like all of us. This song brought it all back to me; the pain of making a choice that resulted in someone slipping through my fingers, and out of my life, maybe forever. I would claim that for any parent watching their child grow up, or for anyone at all who has experienced the loss of someone they love – especially a loss they might have prevented – it is virtually impossible to listen to this song without breaking into tears.

It didn’t happen right away, the tears. I had downloaded five new Abba songs I was unfamiliar with and put them on my iPod playlist. When I heard Slipping Through My Fingers the first couple of times it did not make a super-strong impression. I was struck right away by it’s unusual tone (for Abba): Nearly all of their songs, even the ones that are about separation and pain, somehow manage to be upbeat, the one glaring exception being their masterpiece, The Winner Takes it All (another autobiographical song). From first note to last, Slipping Through My Fingers is purely about pain, regret and sadness, without the usual healing froth Abba is so wonderful at providing.

I realized the song had touched something deep within me when, several nights ago, it kept playing in my head as I tried to sleep (always a sure sign that a song is affecting me). Then I began to play it over and over again, memorizing all the harmonies, the words, the instrumentals. And then, it just kicked in – I suddenly “got” that this song was speaking to me, about my life today in Beijing, and what is not part of my life here in Beijing. And since then, every time I hear it I choke up.

Amazingly, this is a live performance – none of the usual over-produced studio pyrotechnics that typify your standard Abba song. And the performance by Agnetha confirms my long-held belief that she is simply the greatest pop vocalist who ever lived. This, I have to say, is among her greatest performances ever.

After a charming classical-style piano introduction, Agnetha starts out with a sweet, almost saccharine description of a father saying goodbye to his little girl. And she sounds like a little girl at first, though in a few seconds that changes. It’s only in the next section that Agnetha unleashes the explosion of sadness, with the words, “The feeling that I’m losing her forever, and without really entering her worth….” Suddenly we know, it’s not just a father saying goodbye to his daughter as she leaves for school; no – he realizes he has lost her forever, and that he never appreciated her while she was there. The chorus begins, one of their most beautiful ever, so poignant, free of their usual optimism-even-in-the-face-of-sorrow. As the chorus ends, Annifrid’s voice intertwines with Agnetha’s for the next verse, and the following line, “What happened to the wonderful adventures,” is almost unbearable in its anguish – lost, forever, the dreams and the plans, all the good intentions unfulfilled. Gone is the childlike tone of the song’s opening; now we feel the full power of the music that reflects life’s deepest disappointments and regrets. After the chorus repeats there’s a mesmerizing duet between two guitars, a final repeat of the chorus, and the song ends.

As I said, it doesn’t hit you at first. It took me a full week of listening before I realized I was obsessedhooked. Knowing that with music beauty is often in the ear of the beholder (or be-hearer), I asked a friend of mine to listen to it. He went through a similar process, at first finding it sweet, but wondering why I was raving about it so much. Then he said he listened again and again, and now he, too, cries when he hears it – and this is someone who, unlike me, does not cry easily. You can see the live video of this performance, but I think it has to be heard on an iPod to really overwhelm you. Whatever you do, don’t watch the youtube clip on a laptop with mediocre speakers; it won’t work. (But do go there to read the comments!)

I know I’ll never be rich or famous, and I’ve had to readjust my dreams and ambitions to conform to the realities of life. But when I am grabbed by a song like this, and when I am overpowered by emotions that bring tears to my eyes, I realize that I wouldn’t give up that ability – the ability to feel deep emotions for something that is beautiful simply because it is beautiful – for anything in the world.

Go to iTunes and pay the 99 cents for the song (from their album Thank You for the Music). If after multiple listenings you don’t think it was worth it, let me know and I will somehow pay the 99 cents back to you. Yeah, it’s just a pop song, and the lyrics are at times lame, even cheesy, but nothing can dam the inspiration behind it. As it was conceived you know its creators were touched by a wave of emotion from deep within their own well of experience. The result: a song that is ever so poignant, ever so moving, and utterly sublime.