❉ ABBA are back. Really back! Can they still do it?
“ABBA albums have always been slightly weird. Collections like ABBA Gold while a great overview of their singles don’t really take you into the curious worlds that the albums do. For every S.O.S., Take A Chance on Me, Super Trouper or Voulez-Vous there’s a Hey, Hey Helen, Dum Dum Diddle, Me and I or an I Let The Music Speak that take the listener to places they don’t see coming. Voyage very much continues that pattern and I think that’s why it hasn’t been received all that well in some places. The collections have presented an image of the band that doesn’t really reflect all their quirks.”
It’s safe to say that there was a lot of anticipation for the new ABBA album, Voyage. Back in 1982, ABBA disappeared with a whimper rather than a bang with a few new songs and the collection ABBA- The Singles: The First 10 Years that collected all their singles together. And then, nothing… No announcement that they’d split up. They just slipped through our fingers into sporadic solo careers and musicals.
It’s strange to think that through much of their original career and throughout the ’80s that they were largely a group that was ridiculed. Held up as all that was ridiculous about the 1970s, their musical legacy was largely ignored save for discount compilations of their work until the release of ABBA Gold in 1992 which prompted an outpouring of affection for the Super Swedes. Their work was re-evaluated and suddenly everyone remembered why they’d loved them in the first place, but some of us never forgot.
ABBA were my first love. Way back before Doctor Who seized my imagination and never let it go, I was an ABBA fan. My parents talk fondly of me as a toddler sat on our faded orange sofa (yes, it was the late ’70s!) intently watching them on TV, legs stuck out over the edge of the cushions, utterly entranced by them. I’d sing their songs; I had their annuals at Christmas; the first tape I ever owned had Side 2 of Arrival recorded on it. The first single I owned was Super Trouper, the first album I owned was The Visitors. I kept the faith even when it was very uncool to do so. I went to see Mamma Mia!; I bought the album re-releases; went to their various exhibitions but even my love for them never blinded me to the fact that they were a part of the past. They were never coming back.
It was a big surprise then when the announcement came in 2018 that they had recorded two new songs together! They were reportedly reuniting for a big TV special in 2019 that would launch the songs, with Benny Andersson hinting there could even be a third new song. So much excitement, that for a long while came to nothing. The TV special was shelved and the initial flurry of elation dissipated. We all began to doubt that they’d ever get released. Rumours that they’d recorded even more songs, maybe enough for a new album surfaced every so often but that was it until late August 2021.
Suddenly, it was all systems go. An album was announced, a new show and two new songs debuted on 2 September and wow, ABBA were back. Really back!
Sitting down to listen to I Still Have Faith in You and Don’t Shut Me Down was a really odd experience for me. There were mixed feelings as I clicked play. What if they weren’t any good? What if they were a disappointment? What if I don’t like them? All utterly unfounded, of course, but these are the things that plague your mind when you love a band so much and they haven’t produced any music together for 40 years. I wanted to love them and I did. As soon as I heard Anni-Frid’s voice at the start of I Still Have Faith in You I knew it was going to be fine. Then the goosepimples as Agnetha joined in and their voices merged, as I’d heard them do so many times before. It was good. Stately, slightly wistful and melancholy as they looked back.
I couldn’t help feeling a slight twinge of disappointment. It felt like it was going to be a grower, revealing its layers slowly over a few listens. What I wanted was something a bit more upbeat and well, ABBA like really. Don’t Shut Me Down was absolutely that. A total banger and an instant classic, it burst out of the speakers. Agnetha’s voice sounded as great as always, the piano that recalled Dancing Queen or Chiquitita as the chorus kicked in, lyrics that harked back to One of Us and Knowing Me, Knowing You, the slightly awkward phrasing in the verses… It was absolute perfection!
I felt like I was hearing the sequel song to One of Us, the protagonist realising she’s made a mistake and going to put things right with her former lover. It’d only taken her forty years to go back but a lot can change in that time! To me it seemed just right. It was a song that felt like 1982 and 2021 combined. It really could have been their follow up single to One of Us at any time in-between.
I must admit that I was slightly overwhelmed hearing the two songs and found I was in tears as Don’t Shut Me Down played out. Sometimes you don’t realise just what something means to you until you’re shown. It was impossible they were back and yet I was hearing two new songs. I don’t think I could quite process that!
The speculation for what the album would be like began immediately. There were small clues in the tracklisting. Just A Notion jumped out at me straight away, as one of the songs the band had recorded around 1978, a small snippet of which had been included in the ABBA Undeleted track that was full of off cuts from their career. Bumblebee might be based around another those tracks too but what could Keep An Eye On Dan be about? We’d soon find out.
In context as an album opener, I Still Have Faith in You is perfect. Can they still do it? Will this work out? The answer is a resounding yes, as heard in the euphoric chorus. It works much better as the first track here, proving that they still have the ability and skill to work together and do something brilliant. The weight of history on their shoulders isn’t a burden; now it gives them the strength to do this.
When You Danced With Me is one of those seemingly upbeat songs that ABBA write but the lyrics are tinged with sadness. It’s Irish themes are drawn out in both the arrangement and the lyrics, lamenting someone leaving a small village to head off the city and a new life written from the point of view of the person they left behind. There’s hope there, but ultimately, we never find out if the person is back for love or not. The story isn’t quite complete. It’s a fine song.
Little Things is ABBA’s Christmas song, 41 years after their bittersweet New Year song. Its twee arrangement works against its rather touching lyrics celebrating those little touches and gestures that happen between two people in a relationship. There are some playful hints within it about what those happy moments might be, but ultimately the little things mean a whole lot more like happy children on Christmas morning. The children’s choir probably tips it over into being over-sentimental but it’s Christmas and a time for that.
The sound of children disappears and in my favourite bit of sequencing on the album, the start of Don’t Shut Me Down references children’s laughter disappearing. Lovely work! It covers a similar theme to When You Danced With Me only this time there’s hope of a reconciliation after some realisation from the protagonist that her behaviour caused the split. “And Love and hope is why I am here now” is simple and really affecting.
Just a Notion takes Agnetha’s and Anni-Frid’s vocals from the original 1978 recording and places them on a new backing track. This song is a knockabout slice of pub rock, very upbeat with soaring vocals and an irresistible chorus. Originally developed between The Album and Voulez-Vous, it doesn’t quite belong to either of those albums, but it feels right here. It’s wonderful to hear a full version after all these years.
Two of the highlights of the album follow, both of which showcase Agnetha’s skills as a brilliant storyteller. She absolutely inhabits both the characters in these songs, having lost none of her skill of being able to break your heart as she sings. In I Can Be That Woman she is an alcoholic, lamenting the wasted years in a relationship between two people who were never quite who they should have been. Her voice cracks as she realises she’s reached rock bottom and the pain in her vocals is palpable. It’s a tremendous song, infused with bitterness, reproach and a glimmer of hope at the end. The music recalls One Man, One Woman from ABBA-The Album and again could perhaps be seen as a sequel, recalling those two characters many years later. It’s an absolute triumph and one of the high points of the album.
Agnetha takes on a different role for Keep An Eye on Dan playing the role of a divorced mum, handing over her son to his dad for the weekend. Her frustration and sadness as she says goodbye to her son is well conveyed and the lines about banging the wheel as she leaves really feel like she’s only just keeping it together. I love the sadness in the lines when she’s reflecting in the changes in her ex, reminding her of their first date. With a driving, rather dark arrangement, this is another highlight of the album.
Bumblebee is an altogether gentler song, its arrangement recalling the folk song feel of Fernando. One of the things no-one expected to hear on this album was Anni-Frid plaintively lamenting the loss of the bumblebee due to climate change. It’s heartfelt and a change of pace for the album and works incredibly well thanks to the beautiful vocals.
No Doubt About It on first listen is a traditional upbeat ABBA song, but the lyrics taker it to darker places, showing that Benny and Bjorn have lost none of their old skill for dressing up dark topics in cheery arrangements. The joint vocals are wonderful; they soar together sounding as tremendous as ever. The way they blend together is one of the things that makes ABBA what they are and it’s so good to hear that again.
The album closes with Ode to Freedom. It’s a quiet and highly moving song. It’s a song about writing but realising that the very song you’re trying to write is unachievable. There is no ode to freedom that we all can sing. It’s a curiously downbeat ending to the album but once again it sounds utterly beautiful as they all sing together.
ABBA albums have always been slightly weird. Collections like ABBA Gold while a great overview of their singles don’t really take you into the curious worlds that the albums do. For every S.O.S., Take A Chance on Me, Super Trouper or Voulez-Vous there’s a Hey, Hey Helen, Dum Dum Diddle, Me and I or an I Let The Music Speak that take the listener to places they don’t see coming. Voyage very much continues that pattern and I think that’s why it hasn’t been received all that well in some places. The collections have presented an image of the band that doesn’t really reflect all their quirks.
For me, though, this is right up there with their best work. It’s rare that a band comes back together after such a long time to produce some of their best work, but I feel ABBA have come back at the top of their game. It would have been easy to produce something of a pastiche of their earlier work, but they’ve resisted that. Instead, they’ve created an album that’s very much their own thing. It’s an ABBA album that feels like it follows on from The Visitors only around 39 years later than it should have done.
Will it be the last word from ABBA? Benny and Bjorn seem very definite it will be, though Anni-Frid has only this week been dropping hints that it may not be. If it is, then they’re finishing off their career on a real high. As none of us ever saw this coming, who knows. I’m very sure though that they still have it in them. I’m glad I kept my faith in them for all these years.
What else is there to say except, Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid, thank you for the music.
❉ ABBA’s new album ‘Voyage’ is out now.
❉ Simon Hart has been a regular contributor to We Are Cult since its inception in September 2016 and he co-hosts Maximum Power: A Blake’s 7 Podcast: Follow @MaximumPowerPod.