If you asked me what ABBA’s records do better than anybody else’s, I’d say that they make you feel as if you’re extremely happy to have been thrown off the peak of a glacier. In ABBA land, you’re perpetually falling through a cold world, but hurtling forward, kept aloft on warm winds of sound. The only fear is of what will happen when the music stops. Thankfully, it doesn’t. In theaters, movie houses, karaoke rooms, weddings, and everywhere else people gather around the world, the band has played on, even when the group itself was no longer together. In the past few years, as ABBA hinted at and then confirmed a return, capped this week by the release of the new album Voyage, one wondered what the band had to gain from it. What is a comeback if you never went away?
As successful as it was, ABBA’s whitest-of-white Europop was scorned by the anglo-American rock establishment and counterculture alike in their heyday—the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau famously wrote in 1979, “We have met the enemy, and it is them.” But ABBA’s turnaround to reclamation came at a record speed, as punks and gay clubbers alike, spurred on by that mainstream contempt, embraced the Swedish quartet’s paradoxical status as blockbuster underdogs. Its pantomimes of normality never seemed like true conformism, thanks to their geo-cultural otherness and the grownup melancholy undertow built into their ecstastic flights. By the time Agnetha Fältskog, Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad put out their swan song The Visitors in 1981, they were in their mid-30s. The divorces of the group’s two couples (A-B and B-A) had been prime material for several years. Roughly a decade later, early Brit-pop favorites Erasure made a hit tribute record that proved there’d be a market for the ABBA Gold collection, which went on to be one of the best-selling albums of all time. Soon, the group’s closest Swedish successors, Ace of Base, reconquered the charts, and the members of Nirvana were using ABBA hooks as instructional diagrams; it doesn’t take much imagination to hear Agnetha and Frida’s voices whooshing through the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Through the rest of the 1990s, the soundtracks of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding rolled out the red carpet to the Mamma Mia jukebox musical and subsequent cross-generational-hit movies. Meanwhile, Swedish producers like Max Martin were remaking global pop in ABBA’s image, evolving the group’s studio virtuosity and “melodic math” with digital tools, to the benefit of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and, into the late-aughts and beyond, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, the Weeknd, and countless others. Much of that template would be adopted by the K-Pop bands that command fan armies today, not to mention all the indie-pop sophisticates who’ve followed in the crying-in-the-club dance steps of Sweden’s own Robyn. ABBA’s pop influence at this point has to be measured in similar units to that of the Beatles or James Brown. If you still bristle at such comparisons, you have met the enemy, and it is you.
What more can Voyage possibly hope to add to this landscape? In part, this album is a justification for the group’s planned reunion concerts next year in a custom-built London venue, where they’ll appear in holographic form as “ABBAtars;” it suits ABBA’s second-language lyrical legacy that nobody seems to have pointed out that this sounds not only like “avatars” but like “abattoirs,” a little too fitting for the not-quite-liveness of the exercise. But it’s perfectly apt for ABBA to trade in their satin, spandex, and sequins of old for high-tech bodysuits studded with ping pong ball-like trackers. This was a group always more hygge in studios than on stages—an inclination that made its members among the early pioneers of the music video. Individually, they’ve tended to be homebodies, even somewhat reclusive, since the breakup, though Björn and Benny continued to collaborate.
Unlike most band reunions, ABBA’s motivation can’t be because the members need the money, money, money. Rather, with all four now all in their 70s, the appeal must be at least partly to take the sting out of that divorce-damaged ending 40 years ago, making it as much a fractured-family reunion as a musical one. Voyage strikes that note right away with the lovely “I Still Have Faith in You,” which sounds like it’s addressed equally to an estranged partner as to a long-missed listenership: “I know I hear a bittersweet song/ In the memories we share,” it confesses, before declaring with all-out, wall-of-ABBA-sound triumphalism, “We do have it in us… We have a story/ And it survived.”
There’s a similar theme to the next song, “When You Danced with Me,” but it goes off-kilter with a cod-Celtic-synth arrangement that would embarrass a regional Riverdance troupe. And that’s followed by a squirm-inducingly kitschy attempt at an erotic Christmas song, “Little Things.” Placing the record’s two worst tunes so high in the 10-song track list will defeat some well-meaning listeners. But ABBA-heads will just shrug that it wouldn’t be a true ABBA album without some calamitous clunkers; if you don’t know that, you’ve never sampled beyond Gold.
Sure enough, as if as to reward your persistence, what comes next is “Don’t Shut Me Down,” a best-of-ABBA in one song. It opens with an anguished tone reminiscent of “The Winner Takes It All,” as a woman nervously prepares to ring her ex’s doorbell and ask to be taken back, succeeded by a climax of near-“Dancing Queen” disco-riffic proportions when he (presumably) does. I say “near,” because predictably, nothing on Voyage totally succeeds as a time machine back to ABBA’s highest heights. Equally inevitably, in 2021 it’s far more awkwardly conspicuous that the basic ABBA formula involves two men writing songs about romantic conflict for two women to sing—and on “Don’t Shut Me Down,” for instance, often taking the brunt of it. Still, there’s a lot more complexity to the interpersonal dynamics in the songs, thanks to that eternal ABBA weirdness.
“I Can Be That Woman” might, from the title down, find a woman agonizing over her marital mistakes more than the man’s. But it’s also both a musical tribute to and lyrical parody of countrypolitan 1960s and 1970s Nashville hits like “Stand By Your Man”—here, the dysfunctional couple is arguing drunkenly on the couch, while their dog looks on reproachfully, and that dog just happens to be named Tammy, after Tammy Wynette. The following song, “Keep an Eye on Dan,” is an angsty number about divorced co-parenting with an anthemic lite-metal chorus admonishing the estranged husband to supervise the unruly, upset child carefully until “I’ll be back at seven/ on Sunday/ to get him.”
The penultimate track, “No Doubt About It,” again finds the ABBA women singing “I take the blame”—not to mention, in their charmingly askew vernacular, “But, hey, I take the rap/ This one’s my mishap.” Yet as queer audiences have always noticed, the style and sound through which Agnetha and Frida’s voices are produced and blended and elevated into beyond-the-everyday realms entices almost any listener into identifying with the singers’ sentiments regardless of gender. And in that light, those sentiments are universal human experiences of self-questioning and renewal, and liberation, too, because you can only feel so much at fault when you’re dancing or howling along to a chorus bigger than the sky. I don’t think anyone knows the behind-closed-doors details of the ABBA couples’ travails, not the way we do with their contemporary blow-crossed couples in Fleetwood Mac. Despite being a mostly straight guy, it’s never occurred to me not to put myself in the singers’ place in an ABBA song.
There’s always been a scrambled geopolitical undertone to some ABBA songs, from the Napoleon-referencing “Waterloo,” their breakthrough hit at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, to “The Visitors,” a song that’s kinda-sorta about secret police—or at least enough so for the Soviet Union to ban it in the 1980s. Voyage has a couple of those that are unusually direct. “Bumblebee,” with “Fernando”-ish pan flute and faux-Spanish tune (never my preferred ABBA mode), is a winsome environmentalist tribute to the threatened pollinators: “It’s quite absurd, this summer morning/ To think we could be trapped/ Inside a world where all is changing/ Too fast for bumblebees to adapt.” From any other band, this would feel too twee to bear, but I am nothing but endeared to the septuagenarians of ABBA for this grandma-ish take on eco-worries.
I don’t need to grant any such dispensation to enjoy Voyage’s closing political anthem. The name “Ode to Freedom” did not portend well, but the entire song turns out to be about the impossibility of writing the song the title promises. At a time when the word “freedom”—on ABBA’s continent nearly as much as on this one—is oft-twisted to opportunistic aims, lyricist Björn yearns here for the recovery of this “hard to hold,” “fleeting thing.” Benny’s hymn-like orchestral music conjures up a grandeur Björn understands he cannot match, especially since, as he has Frida and Agnetha sing, “Being privileged and spoilt for choice/ Then I fear that you would be suspicious/ Of the cause to which I’d lend my voice.”
There are a lot of songwriters I might have expected to capture the hopelessness of the ideological carnival of 2021, in which even the most elusive abstract value comes loaded with weights it cannot bear. (Longtime U.K. socialist-romantic songwriter Billy Bragg, for instance, comes close at a few moments on his own new release, The Million Things That Never Happened.) I never would have put Björn and Benny on that list. Which only proves that we haven’t run out of levels on which we might have underestimated ABBA, still hurtling through the air alongside us after all these years.