Arts Entertainments

ABBA return—and pretend no time has passed—with “Voyage”

The return of ABBA may be the biggest event in pop music so far this century. On November 5th the Swedish group, which quietly disbanded four decades ago, released a new album, entitled “Voyage”. With a Beatles reunion or a Michael Jackson comeback impossible, it is hard to envision anything else that might be so eagerly anticipated.

The timing is certainly right. Today the heritage act reigns supreme, thanks to a combination of demographics, shifts in music-industry business models, and the settling of pop into a mature art form. Paradoxically, though new music is produced in ever-greater quantities, and young stars have an unprecedented global reach enabled by the internet, old music continues to dominate. It took until 2019 for an artist who emerged in the 21st century—Ed Sheeran—to top its list of high-grossing concert tours; you have to go down a further 13 places on that list to find another newcomer (Bruno Mars). Beyoncé, Drake and Taylor Swift earn vast sums with new releases, yet the Beatles’ catalogue remains the most profitable. In an era of streaming, with its relatively low royalty returns for artists, only two groups sold over 1m album units in America last year: K-pop superstars BTS, and the Liverpool quartet, whose last original studio album was issued 50 years ago.

The excitement around ABBA, however, is not really related to money and statistics. They have a particular cultural heft: their music has seeped like water through porous rock into the collective consciousness and is instantly identifiable across generations. Everybody knows their tunes. Their first fans were baby-boomers, yet today teenagers flock to ABBA-themed club nights, films and musicals.

Add to this the group’s rarity value: as most of their contemporaries have engaged in profitable reunions, ABBA have—until now—resisted all efforts to bring them back together, reportedly refusing a billion-dollar offer to tour 20 years ago. “You’ll never see us onstage again,” Bjorn Ulvaeus, the group’s guitarist and co-songwriter, told Billboard in 2014, adding: “We don’t need the money, for one thing.”

That is a typically Swedish attitude. Sweden is the country of “lagom”, the idea of “just enough”, of being comfortable rather than acquiring more just for the sake of it. Doubtless all the members of ABBA are more than comfortable. But the protestations serve as a reassurance that the only reason there is a new ABBA album is because they themselves wanted to make one. They will be as good as Mr Ulvaeus’s word, too, in spirit if not to the letter. You will see ABBA on stage again, but only if you witness their digital iterations, in the form of holograms, at a purpose-built arena in London, scheduled for at least a four-year run from next spring.

The funny tricks of time

Although always popular, ABBA were not always as critically revered as they are today. At the height of their career, the then-gatekeepers of the cultural canon by and large considered the band a tacky irrelevance. The “wrong” people loved them—housewives, young girls, gay men—people whose tastes were not taken seriously. The critical aversion to ABBA was not directly connected to the now-notorious (and racist and homophobic) “disco sucks” movement, but it sprang from a similar well. Though ABBA were not a disco band per se, in the eyes of their detractors their eager embrace of the form only served to confirm their inherent frivolity.

Few had any inkling how bold ABBA’s pop sensibility had been in the first place. The Swedish music scene at the time was ruled over by rigid, humourless adherents of doctrinaire folk and progressive rock. ABBA arrived like a stealthy Nordic Sex Pistols, with irresistible melodies and efferverscent arrangements in place of swearing and v-signs.

Only long after the fact did others begin to pick up on what ABBA fans had known all along: that this was music whose charm concealed deceptive complexity as well as profound melancholy. Far from blowing away on time’s breezes, it has shown unique staying power. By the early 2000s ABBA were being justly likened to their saturnine compatriot, the film-maker Ingmar Bergman—which was never more apt than on what was thought to be their final album, “The Visitors” (1981), the exquisite and inconsolable product of two recent divorces within a group of four people. (In 1990 “C’est La Vie”, a spoof by the British comedy duo French And Saunders, hit neatly upon the existential sorrow that suffused much of ABBA’s work.)

So what of that new album? Every single thing on “Voyage” strongly evokes some other, particular thing ABBA did in their initial glorious run. Nowhere does it offer the slightest acknowledgement that almost 40 years have passed. That is something of a relief. An ABBA trading on its past strengths is preferable to an 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 faintly martial steps of “Fernando” and “Chiquitita”. If “Just A Notion” is the closest thing to the bouncy, piano-led pop-rock associated with ABBA’s earlier days, that may be because it was actually written in 1978. “No Doubt About It” evokes the more sophisticated, synthesiser-driven variation on that sound which followed.

“Voyage” is most powerful when it is most subtle and indeed there seems to have been a conscious decision not to emulate the instantly captivating, dancefloor-filling “sad banger” hits of which ABBA were pop’s supreme practitioners. The most impressive tracks are those which pick up where “The Visitors” left off: the gripping marital theatrics of “I Can Be That Woman”; “Don’t Shut Me Down”, a reflective post-divorce tune that takes the listener straight back to 1981; and a remarkable snapshot of custodial anxiety, “Keep an Eye on Dan”. These numbers grow in stature with each hearing, underlining how ABBA may have arrived as entertainers, but departed as grown-ups unrivalled in the musical expression of complicated relationships.

Perhaps the best way to view “Voyage” is in the same light as the forthcoming “ABBAtars” show: as a meticulously crafted, age-reversing simulacrum, created in good faith. It is simultaneously a phantom of itself and, miraculously, an actual, original ABBA album—one fans thought they’d never hear.

Correction (November 9th 2021): A previous version of this piece said that Mr Ulvaeus is the group’s keyboardist. He is, in fact, the group’s guitarist. This has been corrected.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *