Back in my days as an English teacher, there were a couple of songs I used to use when I was teaching grammar. One was Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega, which features a series of “I am doing” sentences. The other was The Day Before You Came, which uses repeated instances of “must have“. Tom’s Diner always left me feeling sort of flat, but TDBYC carried a punch that sometimes took me off-guard.
I can’t think of a song that has quite the same sense of foreboding as The Day Before You Came. Over a steady electronic drum beat, Agnetha Fältskog sings in character as a woman thinking back to a day of unwitting innocence. The day takes place in a period of boredom and monotony, of commuting and office work. The song uses the same device you get in horror films, where the victim is absorbed in mundane tasks, but the soundtrack tells you something is off. Agnetha’s character gets up, goes to work, has lunch, comes home, watches Dallas, reads a bit and goes to sleep. Just before she falls asleep, she hears the rain rattling on the window. The odd line indicates that all is not well. “Without really knowing anything, I hid a part of me away,” she sings. Then later, “At the time I never even noticed I was blue.”
This is just the kind of ice-cold darkness that you want Scandinavians to sing about. It describes a world where everything works, everything is functional. People are calmly going about their business. But underneath the surface lurks the full turmoil of humanity. The sadness and desperation are locked away, out of reach, vague and indiscernable.
Who is this man that arrives the following day? Although the song is fictional, it’s natural to imagine him as a Björn Ulvaeus stand-in, just as we do for The Winner Takes It All, and One of Us. Like these songs, The Day Before You Came looks back ruefully on a relationship gone bad.
The song is notable for the fact that the drama takes place outside of what is described. We get hints of the relationship, but none of what happened is made clear. This lack of clarity only adds to the sense of fear. Like in the movie Jaws, the thing you don’t see is scarier than the thing you do see. “I had no sense of living without aim” is a great example of this. How did she get into this state of aimlessness? How did she go from a humdrum life as an office-worker to a life with no hope, no bearings, no sense of direction? It had something to do with the arrival of this man, but the rest we have to fill in by ourselves.