ABBA returns – and pretend no time has passed – with “Voyage”
The will return ABBA may be the biggest event in pop music so far this century. On November 5 the Swedish group, which quietly disbanded four decades ago, released a new album entitled “Voyage”. With a Beatles reunion or Michael Jackson’s return impossible, it’s hard to see anything else that would be so highly anticipated.
The timing is definitely right. Today the heritage act reigns supreme, due to a combination of demographics, shifts in music industry business models, and pop’s position as a mature art form. Paradoxically, while new music is being produced in ever greater volumes, and young stars with unprecedented global reach enabled by the internet, old music still prevails . It took until 2019 for an emerging artist of the 21st century – Ed Sheeran – to top the list of top concert tours; you have to go down 13 more places on that list to find a new person (Bruno Mars). Beyoncé, Drake and Taylor Swift earn huge sums with new releases, but the Beatles’ catalog remains the most profitable. In the streaming era, with their relatively low royalty returns to artists, only two groups sold more than 1m album units in America last year: K-pop superstars BTS, and the Liverpool quartet, who Their last original studio release 50 years ago.
The excitement around ABBA, however, is not so much about money and statistics. They have a unique cultural richness: their music has seeped out like water through porous rock into the general consciousness and is easily recognizable across generations. Everyone knows their tunes. Their first fans were followers, but today teenagers flock to ABBA themed club nights, movies and musicals.
Add to this the rarity of the group: as most of their contemporaries have engaged in profitable reunions, ABBA have – so far – resisted all attempt to get them back together, reportedly turning down a billion dollar offer to tour 20 years ago. “You won’t see us on stage again,” said Bjorn Ulvaeus, the group’s guitarist and co-songwriter. Tableau in 2014, saying: “We don’t need the money, for one thing.”
That is a typical Swedish attitude. Sweden is the country of “lagom”, the idea of ”just enough”, being comfortable rather than getting more just for the sake of it. Of course all the members of ABBA are more comfortable. But the complaints are proof that the only reason there is a new ABBA album is because they wanted to make one themselves. They will be as good as Mr. Ulvaeus’ word too, in spirit if not in letter. You will see ABBA on stage again, but only if you see their digital versions, in the form of holograms, at a purpose-built arena in London, scheduled for at least a run four years from next spring.
The funny tricks of the time
Although they were always popular, ABBA were not always as revered as they are today. At the height of their career, the band was considered irrelevant by the guardians of the cultural canon at the time. They were loved by the “wrong” people – housewives, young girls, gay men – people whose taste was not taken seriously. The critical opposition to ABBA was not directly related to the now famous (and racist and homophobic) “disco sucks” movement, but it came from a similar source. Although ABBA was not a disco band per se, in the eyes of their detractors they were not adopting the form but proving their inherent frivolity.
Not many thought of how bold ABBA’s pop sensation was in the first place. The Swedish music scene at the time was ruled by strict, humorless followers of a progressive folk and rock teacher. ABBA arrived as the generic Nordic Sex Pistols, with irresistible melodies and eternal arrangements instead of swearing and v-signs.
It was only later that others began to pick up on what ABBA fans had known all along: that this was music whose charm hid a false complexity as well as beer -deep black. Far from blowing away with the winds of time, it has demonstrated unique staying power. In the early 2000s ABBA were rightly compared to their saturnine partner, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman – never more fittingly than their latest album, The Visitors ” (1981), the magnificent and unpredictable result. two recent divorces within a group of four. (In 1990 “C’est La Vie”, a spoof by the British comedy duo French And Saunders, was a quick hit on the sadness that plagued much of ABBA’s work.)
So what about that new album? Everything on “Voyage” strongly suggests another special thing that ABBA did in their first glorious run. Nowhere does it give the slightest acknowledgment that nearly 40 years have passed. That’s a relief. ABBA trading on past strengths is better than ABBA trying to keep up with events.
It opens with a secular hymn, “I Still Have Faith In You”, strongly reminiscent of “Thank You For The Music” and “I Believe In Angels”. “When You Danced With Me” and “Bumblebee” are Euro-folk anthems that follow in the thin military footsteps of “Fernando” and “Chiquitita”. If “Just A Notion” is the closest thing to the bouncy, piano-pop rock associated with ABBA’s earlier days, that could be because it was written in 1978. that sound that followed.
“Voyage” is more powerful when it’s subtler and in fact seems to have been a conscious decision not to imitate the catchy, dance floor filled “sad banger” hits ABBA were pop’s master practitioners of. The most impressive tracks are those that pick up where “The Visitors” left off: the haunting wedding dramas “I Can Be That Woman”; “Don’t Shut Me Down”, a meditative post-divorce tune that takes the listener straight back to 1981; and a wonderful picture of caring concern, “Keep an Eye on Dan”. These numbers grow in status with each listen, confirming how ABBA may have arrived as entertainment, but left as unique adults in a musical way of complicated relationships.
Perhaps the best way to see “Voyage” is in the same light as the upcoming “ABBAtars” show: as a carefully crafted simulacrum that bounces back with age, created with good intention It’s simultaneously a true reflection of itself and, miraculously, a true original ABBA album – one fans thought they’d never hear. ■
Correction (November 9, 2021): A previous version of this piece said Mr. Ulvaeus was the group’s keyboardist. He is, of course, the group’s guitarist. This has been corrected.