There's obviously going to be a certain amount of redundancy built into the purchase (or acquisition by gift) of an item like this -- anyone for whom it would possibly be appropriate as a possession is virtually certain to already own something close to 90 percent of what's here in some form or other. That said, this 11-disc (nine-CD/two-DVD) set is handsome enough, and such is the fandom of ABBA that the marketplace can easily absorb yet another compilation of their work. This release, reportedly limited to 25,000 copies worldwide, is appearing post-Mama Mia, after all, where the group has a showcase on Broadway (which reportedly, as of late 2005, has advance ticket sales stretching out years ahead) for their music, variously expanding and reinvigorating that fan base by the thousands in person on a daily basis. And there are aspects of its contents that make this box special and unique, though whether these are all positive is open to debate, depending upon how sensitive, sophisticated, or obsessive a listener one happens to be.
The discs are designed to look like black vinyl (similar to what was done with the CDs in ABKCO's Rolling Stones CD singles boxes), and the eight original albums are packaged in mini-LP sleeves re-creating the art and design of the quartet's original releases; one also gets two books that encompass, respectively, the song lyrics and a lavishly illustrated time line for group's history and work. Each of the albums represented here has been augmented with the presences of relevant bonus tracks -- usually alternate mixes or alternate language versions (favoring Swedish or Spanish); the ninth disc is the rarities volume, which includes such tracks as an alternate version of "Lovelight" and a previously unheard alternate mix of "Waterloo" (mastered from a vinyl source), and an extended version of "On and On and On" (in mono -- all that was available). Speaking of availability, the DVD inclusion of the live performances off the Dick Cavett Show is limited to five songs, the rest having never officially been preserved in the Swedish television archives (although they were on a videocassette issued in Japan sometime in the 1980s). The DVDs encompass a documentary as well as the core of their video collection, but the 1979 ABBA Live is not included in this set, and there are a few odd tracks that aren't here, ranging from some odd version of "Dancing Queen" with the extra verse, and a version of "Under Attack" that only appeared on an American cassette, to an oft-discussed but never quite finished single "Just Like That," which is to ABBA approximately what the extended version of "Bluebird" was to Buffalo Springfield. It is fortunate that the rarities, even when they aren't variants of international hits, are as eminently listenable as the group's main catalog, and their presence greatly expands choices that one has for listening, even on a casual basis.
The mastering will be a separate issue to some listeners. Rather than draw upon the digital masters done for the 2001 reissues of the ABBA catalog, the producers appear to have gone back to the original analog tapes for a fresh pass, which at times yields impressive results -- the sound here is often downright glowing, but so was the sound on the last round of reissues -- but it also means that they've done their own fixes of the various anomalies that existed in the original tapes, independent of the work that was previously done so successful on The Definitive Collection. In many instances, only noise-freaks and those with producer's ears will notice the differences, but it's to be left to the individual listener to decide for themselves whether the new masters work 100 percent or not. Some people may possibly prefer the seemingly greater fidelity to the original analog tapes. In terms of overall design, on the plus side the producers have made this set a little more convenient to organize for actual listening (as opposed to sitting on one's shelf) than is usual for boxes such as this, except when it comes to organizing or presenting relevant information -- each album has been augmented with bonus cuts, but to keep track of the latter or their origins and raison d'etre here, one much consult a separate insert sheet or go to the accompanying book. And one other important consideration for almost anyone buying this set, because of the presence of the DVDs, is that they make sure that whatever edition they're buying -- especially if they're ordering it online -- is mastered for the video format used in their locale. They all seem to be Region 0, but must be NTSC for the United States and Canada and PAL in most other parts of the world. Otherwise one will be limited to enjoying those discs on computer playback, or will need to own an all-region player. This is an expensive set, to be sure, particularly at the official list price, but also one that's easily enough enjoyed.