Jhe journey to Voyage, Abba’s latest studio album and their first in 40 years, began with a tweet from their brand new Twitter account in August, urging people to “join us”. Billboards across London followed, featuring images of some sort of solar eclipse, a shimmering ball in a sci-fi silhouette. A week later, news of a 10-track album and a ‘digital avatar’ gig residency in a custom-built London arena arrived. The signs were good. Here is a group aware of their heritage as creators of sparkling pop, but also of the futuristic spirit of disco, understanding that they had to exploit the shock of novelty.
In September, one of the album’s two test tracks, Don’t Shut Me Down, fulfilled that brief exquisitely, shifting from vulnerable Swedish noir to piano-and-horn-propelled pop-funk. Its impact was unexpected and exciting and it became Abba’s first Top 10 hit since 1981, charging Voyage with the promise of forward movement and glamor – qualities that seemed hugely appealing in our messy times. of mid-Covid. It is therefore difficult to reckon with the disappointment delivered by Abba’s ninth album, which prefers to languish in disconcerting often retrograde settings.
It starts with I Still Have Faith in You, the other test track released in September. An epic example of the “bittersweet song” that Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog refer to in the lyrics – in their different, but still charming and older voices – his meditation on how to confront and appropriate for the aging process is precisely tailored in shimmering silver thread. The elegiac opening string phrase yearns for resolution throughout, before returning wistfully in the song’s closing bars. The soft drumbeats of the second verse (by Super Trouper and The Visitors veteran Per Lindvall) are among the many fine musical details that keep the women going. It is, admittedly, a little cheesy, but its tenderness always seems triumphant.
But rather than poignantly reflecting on the past, much of the rest of Voyage definitely feels stuck there. When You Danced With Me tells the story of a girl left behind in Kilkenny when a boy she loved ‘left for the city’. She spent years waiting for his return, we are told; presumably she is unaware of the existence in Ireland of rail routes, test drives or text messages. The Celtic-leaning melody of the intro recalls Abba’s forays into other global contexts, like Fernando’s Mexican battlefields or Chiquitita’s Hispano-Peruvian musical moodboards. The overall effect does not cause folk nostalgia, but mild nausea.
Next comes the album’s great crime against meaning, sentimentality and sequencing, Little Things, a Christmas song inserted into the third track. All about the delights of the season, it includes a children’s choir singing about their grandmother (St Winifred’s school singers would sound like rebellious punks by comparison), but also, in jerky juxtaposition, allusions to mom and dad’s sex life. The implication of a dark transactional quality behind a romantic gesture is particularly strange. “You might consider bringing me a breakfast tray, but there’s a price,” Lyngstad sings, after noticing her partner’s “mischievous eyes.” You hope that if presented with a sausage for breakfast, she will impale it and then throw it away.
Admittedly, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson have never been the most enlightened lyricists on the feminist front. One of us and give me! Give me ! Give me ! (A Man After Midnight) are two of many Abba songs featuring an uptight woman desperate for a man to appear and quickly correct her loneliness. Now four decades have passed, and we can’t help but despair to the chorus of I Can Be That Woman (“You’re not the man you should have been / I let you down from a somehow”) and that’s after his terrible lyrical twist about a woman her husband is sleeping with, who turns out to be… a dog. Keep an Eye on Dan delivers another miserable monologue from a languid divorcee, spoiling its fantastic mix of Visitor-era ice cream and Will-Era disco propulsion.
Ulvaeus recently said that these songs were written “absolutely blind to trends”. This shows. Including tracks such as the rejected 1978 single Just a Notion (a reminder of early, jangly glam abba, but nothing more) and Bumblebee (a naïve attempt to say something universal about climate change) makes you doubt your their quality control. At least Voyage’s finale, Ode to Freedom, hints at a grand closing statement, pastiche and stretching a phrase from a waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But then its lyrics talk about the futility of writing an ode worth remembering, which leaves a strange note, especially when talking about a band whose songs are known all over the world.
“If I ever write my ode to freedom / It will be in prose that suits me,” he concludes. This may be a reference to the female members’ preference for intimacy, or even Abba’s determination to continue creating their unusual song structures in their Swedish reading of English – but it also suggests that ‘Abba feels they can exist in their own bubble. They can not. In the past, they excelled when they diverted the sounds of their time in their own way, when they were in glam, disco and electronic pop but also outside of these genres; when their idiosyncrasies elevated them instead of diminishing them. If only they had stopped at these two learned songs, leaving the rest to our dazzling imaginations.