ABBA’s best songs have always captured the business, pleasure and pain of being ABBA. They made every kind of song – delicate lullabies, hot-for-teacher karaoke staples, ballads of friendship – but there’s a deft magic to those they wrote about their own relationships and idiosyncrasies.
“Super Trouper”, one of the Swedish quartet’s many enduring romps from 1980, is a doleful threnody to the hardships of touring life, encrusted with glitter and rhinestones: “All I do is eat and sleep and sing / Wishing every show was the last show.” “One of Us”, one of the group’s final hits as both couples in the group were divorcing, paints the torture and treachery of marital break-up. “If It Wasn’t for the Nights”, a gorgeous hidden gem from the group’s 1979 record Voulez-Vous, advocates for workaholism as a way to distract from the pain of separation, the kind of crying-in-the-club disco anthem that ABBA’s countrywoman Robyn would go on to perfect 30 years later with “Dancing On My Own”.
That magic is present in “I Still Have Faith in You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down”, ABBA’s first new songs in 40 years. Released miraculously as a double-A-side single earlier this year in anticipation of a new album titled Voyage, both tracks seem to comment on the overwhelming weirdness of ABBA’s decades-later reunion, perfect pieces of metacommentary in the style of the band’s greatest hits. The first, a soaring ballad sung by Anni-Frid Lyngstad, is another entry in the band’s canon of trepidatious divorce songs, with some pre-reunion jitters thrown in:
Do I have it in me?
I believe it is in there
For I know I hear a bittersweet song
In the memories we share…
The second, sung by Agnetha Fältskog, trades in a similar kind of anticipatory tension. “Don’t Shut Me Down” is a mid-tempo disco cut that could slot in right alongside “One of Us” in the next inevitable reissue of ABBA Gold. In its best moments, it seems to make an appeal to the fans that might be nervous about the prospect of these four icons – Fältskog, Lyngstad, and their respective ex-husbands and songwriters, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson – reuniting after so steadfastly refusing to for so long:
I’m asking you to have an open mind
(and I won’t be the same)
I’m not the same this time around
I’m fired up, don’t shut me down…
For fans, these songs allowed a sigh of relief. As with any reunion, there was something deeply strange about news of ABBA’s return. In the decades since it disbanded, the Swedish group has gone through a seemingly impossible number of commercial renaissances and critical re-evaluations, thanks to a handful of well-placed legacy fortifiers: the release of a greatest hits compilation, ABBA Gold, that caused a resurgence in popularity for the group; the emergence of Björn Again, an Australian tribute band that slowly became a genuine phenomenon; and the opening of Mamma Mia!, a jukebox musical featuring ABBA’s hits that was eventually adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep and Colin Firth.
In the years since ABBA retired, the band’s body of work has taken on a life of its own; their songs, as schmaltzy as they can be, now play like standards, and there’s a certain kind of music nerd – myself included – who sees their hits as an all-time gold standard of pop songwriting.
All of this makes Voyage, which was released this week, a tricky prospect. There are so many wonderful ways to enjoy ABBA’s songbook, none of which could ever really taint the band’s legacy. Watching Streep and Pierce Brosnan struggle through a pitchy rendition of “S.O.S.” might feel like pulling teeth, but such a performance has no real influence over ABBA’s status as a band with an extraordinary strike rate and historically strict quality control.
“I Still Have Faith in You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down” are as good as anything ABBA has ever made – I genuinely believe they could have been released in the band’s ’70s heyday – but the question remains whether anyone genuinely needs Voyage. ABBA’s catalogue is so deep, and collections such as Gold – with a track list that’s free-associative and impressionistic as opposed to success-driven or chronological – prove there are infinite ways to rearrange the band’s work into an assemblage that feels new. Although its lead singles constituted something of a divine treat in an altogether terrible year, a new ABBA record has to prove its worth.
Voyage struggles with that task: it has its moments, but at its worst, this is a record that feels embarrassing to listen to, the kind of revival that seems to have only been concocted in order to wring the last few dollars from the pockets of ABBA’s core demographic. It would be fine if Voyage mostly comprised bad songs – many ABBA records mostly comprise bad songs – but there’s an unnerving 2020s gloss to Voyage that more often makes it feel like the work of an ABBA tribute bot than ABBA themselves.
“When You Danced with Me”, which aims for mirthful pub singalong and lands short, is poreless and thin, giving no impression that it was actually recorded by a live band, even though it was. “Just a Notion”, an “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do”-style barnstormer, pairs vocals recorded during the Voulez-Vous sessions with new instrumentation, an altogether uncanny meeting of past and present. The song succeeds because it’s just so good and so ABBA – a clash of musical upbeat and emotional woundedness that nobody has ever done quite as well as Ulvaeus, Andersson, Fältskog and Lyngstad – but its attempts to recapture the magic of the band’s ’70s heyday highlight the fact that there was something ineffable and, in a sense, inexplicable, about ABBA’s imperial phase.
“I Still Have Faith in You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down” succeed because they capture ABBA’s unique craic while acknowledging, both musically and lyrically, that 40 years have passed since the band previously released music.
To suggest Voyage is altogether patchy, though, might be to suggest that it is a genuine return to form: even ABBA’s best records, such as Voulez-Vous and 1981’s paranoid, heartbroken masterpiece The Visitors, feature some almighty stinkers. There are some all-timers among the detritus here: “I Can Be That Woman”, sung by Fältskog, is a divorce song that numbers among the band’s best ballads. As ever, it takes a unique vantage point: Fältskog is singing to an ex, but much of the song’s pathos comes from the way she describes the effect the separation is having on their dog: “The reproach in her eyes is imagined,” she sings, “But the pain that I feel is real.” A gem among the rough, it’s bizarre and kind of brilliant – in other words, undeniably ABBA.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 6, 2021 as "Money, money, money".
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