ABBA Spring Back After 40 Years With ‘Voyage’
Pop music history is full of curious success stories in which artists amass fervent followings in defiance of all odds. This usually takes the shape of intense infatuations that quickly fizzle out after the novelty has run its course. When ABBA took the world by storm in the ‘70s, they were largely dismissed as a passing fad, and understandably so. Transatlantic exchanges that made a lasting mark have typically taken form from parallels between the U.S. and UK, and ABBA’s Scandinavian take on pop was so outlandishly ebullient that hardly anyone expected them to become something of an institution. In retrospect, their lasting impact seems warranted, as they represent a pop ideal — two couples of smiling Swedes running through instantaneous hooks in glossy, bombastic productions. Frivolity has always been the currency of pop music, but it is rarely indulged as unabashedly as in the music of ABBA. The band’s tunes naturally became a template for artists over the years seeking to cut straight to the core of pop instinct. One need only consider the success of “ABBA Gold,” the retrospective compilation that came out in 1992, well past the band’s heyday, and became one of the best selling albums of all time. Now, the four band members, all in their ‘70s, have reunited 40 years after disbanding to record a new album, “Voyage,” in tandem with a a concert residency in London modeled after their late 1970s tour, featuring motion capture digital avatars of the four band members called ABBAtars. The album captures the band undiluted, reverting naturally to their full potency, and doing what they do best.
Opener “I Still Have Faith In You” effectively drives home the reality that ABBA is actually back, swiftly and dramatically ringing with all of the band’s signature qualities — the singsong simplicity, the ‘70s grandeur of the arrangements, and the outlandish cheer of the whole affair On the other hand, the sound on display is so quintessentially ABBA that it borders on self-parody, making one wonder if one did in fact just dream this up. You can hear how the song was built around the vocal melody, as ABBA songs always have been, at one point famously prompting comparisons with Muzac. The revelatory moment comes midway, when the full band erupts into an uplifting chorus that makes due on the titular sentiment. The affirmation of faith is largely directed toward the band members’ belief in one another, and the triumph with which they express it makes for a promising statement of intent.
“When You Danced WIth Me” finds singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the two A’s in ABBA, belting out a melody drawn from folk traditions of idyllic, distinctly European communities. Songwriters Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the two B’s, took inspiration from such sounds throughout ABBA’s career, and are back to their usual moves. As expected, the ditty is amplified and beamed at stadium scale, with synthesizers and thundering drums dressing up the two-pronged vocal attack and striking with proper pop immediacy. The winsome, childlike simplicity that has always characterized ABBA’s tunes is taken to new extents on “Little Things,” with the band owning and running with the quality, turning out a song about opening stockings on Christmas morning, and enlisting a choir of children to take over chorus duties in the end. The celebratory “Just a Notion” builds around boogie woogie piano in a way that was still common in late ‘70s pop fare, and if it sounds like it’s from ‘78, that’s because it is. A new backing track has been added to the original vocal recordings, with the production masterfully executed. It’s a promising preview of the ABBAtar concert, as the performance will fit original recordings of the singers’ vocals to the instrumentation of a live band.
The Swedish melancholy that made its way ever so slightly past the glee on the surface in so many ABBA tunes comes out in “Don’t Shut Me Down,” a song about working up the courage to reach out to a romantic partner on the verge of departing. The band has spoken of how the lyrics also hint at a request for acceptance from fans as they make the bold move of returning after forty years. The way that the song takes up halcyon disco stylings, but doesn’t overdo them, is a perfect musical conveyance for the sentiment. “I Can Be That Woman” is among the more somber moments that punctuate the album’s gleeful excesses. It’s essentially a country song, and a nod to Tammy Wynette in particular. The band are well advised to abstain from any twangy affectations, and the tune rings with a gloss that is authentically ABBA, but the structure and story are classic country fare. It is sung from the perspective of a character who has rebounded from addiction and is approaching life with a newfound clarity and a regret for wasted years. It’s an elegantly understated number reveraling a wisdom that comes with age.
“Keep an Eye on Dan” also tackles a weighty, mature topic, with the titular entreaty arising from a divorced parent’s concern for her child. While such subject matter would normally inspire tortured sounds, ABBA spin it into a giddy pop tune with perhaps the catchiest chorus of the album. The sanguine spirit of the music frames the lyrics in the context of accepting one’s circumstances and marching on without lapsing into despair. “No Doubt About It” takes a similar approach in a streamlined, punchy tune with a refrain that declares, “I made a mess this time, and there’s no doubt about it” with an ebullience that is magnetic. The zen composure that this hints at also surfaces in tracks like “Bumblebee,” a slower, reflective number with a chorus about being in a garden, “Feeling carefree as I listen / To the hum of bumblebees.” While ABBA’s perpetual upbeat posturing and matter-of-fact directness can often come across as vapid, they also reveal a comfort that suggests an enlightened grounding, and songs like these play up that angle. The album culminates with “Ode to Freedom,” a succinct, string-laden meditation that ties the work together by returning to the idealism of the opener. The song tastefully avoids the pitfalls of lofty moralization by keeping the lyrics open ended: “If I ever write my Ode to Freedom… It would be a simple Ode to Freedom / Not pretentious, but with dignity.” It’s an impactful note to end on, highlighting the lack of pretension that has always been at the root of ABBA’s appeal.
In many ways, “Voyage” is an exemplary comeback album, refreshingly free of the drawbacks that typically characterize such undertakings. Bands that reunite decades after their prime are often unable to avoid tarnishing their legacy, simply because of the unflattering optics of aged figures reliving past glories. The choice to feature “ABBAtars” in the upcoming concerts not only avoids this danger, but effectively sublimates the band’s music by extending the vitality of live performance beyond the range of its physical creators. Moreover, it does so in a playful, somewhat kitsch way that is congruent with the music. At the other extreme are countless bands that devote great effort to updating their music for the times, usually to unbecoming ends. ABBA, on the other hand, sound just as they always have, delivering everything one would want in a new ABBA album, with the only ostensible difference being a new maturity that makes its way into the material without ever weighing down the resounding, gleeful spirit at the core.
“Voyage” releases Nov. 5 on Apple Music.