Instead of touring, the Swedish pop icons chose to record their first new album in 40 years instead
Back in 2000, an American / British consortium offered ABBA one billion dollars to reunite for a 100-show tour.
That’s billion. Nine zeros after the one. Over 16 times the $61 million raked in by the then-recent “Hell Freezes Over” reunion tour by the Eagles.
ABBA turned them down.
Now, here we are 21 years later and finally someone came up with an offer ABBA couldn’t refuse and, while fans aren’t getting the reunion tour they hoped for, they have received something they did hope for — a new album.
The solution for the band was to set up a new live show, but not with themselves, but with their version of touring holograms with better technology — 3D virtual versions of themselves, called “ABBAtars” — to “perform” a motion-captured live show they recorded by 160 cameras each day over a period of five weeks, utilizing a team of 850 people from Industrial Light and Magic.
The shows, with the ABBAtars looking like the group on its 1979-80 tour, the only time they played North America, will start with an eight-month residency at a 3,000-seat theater in London beginning next May.
Label: Polar Universal
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But why an album? It turns out Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus thought it might be a good idea to have a couple new songs for that show, originally for a TV special to promote an avatar tour, which didn’t happen as it took a while for the group to have the ABBAtars look right.
The initial recording went well. Playing with house money, they kept going figuring that if it didn’t work, they already had two songs ready for the simulated ABBA shows in London, so if the extra sessions didn’t pan out, no big deal. They were under no pressure to release anything they didn’t want to.
The group’s A contingent — Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad — agreed to do it on the condition that they wouldn’t have to do any promotion. The Bs agreed and now we have the result.
Voyage — their ninth studio album and first in 40 years — is both a return and coda for ABBA’s career. Andersson told The Guardian this year, ““This is it. It’s got to be, you know.”
“I didn’t actually say that ‘this is it’ in 1982. I never said myself that ABBA was never going to happen again. But I can tell you now: This is it.”
Indeed, the intention all those years ago was not to break up (sessions happened for a Visitors follow-up) but others’ own projects delayed things. Ultimately they drifted apart and called it a day in late 1982. Ever since, the personal incentive to reunite just wasn’t there, even with the potential of increasingly lucrative paydays.
Now, we have a bit of an additional soundtrack for what basically amounts to an ABBA theme park attraction, a way for fans to “see” the band without band members, all in their 70s, having to go through the rigors of touring, something they didn’t like doing in their prime.
The result is very much an album from a group that always seemed to exist in a bit of its own universe. Over the course of their initial run, one could see the influences of earlier rock-and-roll (as in “Ring Ring” and “Waterloo”) change into the influences of synth pop by the time of the run-ending Visitors album (“Head over Heels” and “The Day Before You Came”).
It was all filtered through the pop sensibilities of songwriters Andersson and Ulvaeus, though, resulting in a run of hit singles that proved to have more staying power than even the band itself might have realized.
Others ’70s pop mainstays, like the Carpenters, benefitted from a degree of reconsideration from some and perhaps from others realizing that there wasn’t a point in acting like they were “too cool” to admit they liked them. There was a degree of that with ABBA as well, but in a lot of ways, the audience never really left. The Gold compilation, released over 10 years after the breakup in 1992, sold over 5.8 million copies in the U.S alone. The jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” was a hit on Broadway, which turned into two hit films.
Voyage sees ABBA chasing no real musical triends — no embarrassing attempts at rapping, no shameless overuse of melisma, no vocoder robot voices — from the last 40 years. With more studio tools at their disposal, ABBA uses them to sound like themselves from the period that turned them into a cottage industry.
The result is undeniably ABBA, with all the strengths and occasional weaknesses that implies. Will it win over any “too cool for school” types who never liked (or would admit to liking) them? Probably not. Will it please older ABBA fans who remember them as a constant top 40 presence and the younger generations more familiar with their music from compilations and films
The songcraft is still mostly intact and, if Fältskog and Lyngstad, quite understandably, don’t have the same range they had 40 years ago, there’s still a joy in hearing their voices together again.
While not as filled with older pre-existing material as, say, Van Halen’s final album A Different Kind of Truth was, the band does pull one song out of the past and it’s one of the highlights.
“Just a Notion” began in 1978 during sessions for the Voulez-Vous album, but at some point, Andersson and Ulvaeuss became dissatisfied with it.
Revisiting it for Voyage, they kept the original vocals and came up with instrumental backing with which they were happy.
The result is a bouncy little number, with those trademark harmonies and piano backing that sounds like it came from Waterloo for a visit. If they’d found this way to finish it in 1979, it’s easy to see it being another one of their hits.
The opener, “I Still Have Faith in You” starts as a ballad with strings, with Lyngstad on lead vocals. Then the smile of recognition and maybe a happy tear or two as you hear the magic combintion of her and Fältskog together. Then, two minutes in, the chorus swells and it’s the ABBA you remember back again, as the song addresses the four being back together again after all these years apart, acknowledging the bond they have even now.
“Don’t Shut Me Down” is a nifty little trip into their midtempo dance territory with another another chorus to remind you of Benny and Björn’s knack for earworms through the former’s music and the latter’s lyrics.
“Keep an Eye on Dan” sees the band revisit the domestic drama they went through in songs like “Knowing Me Knowing You.” In this case, the Dan is a child the mother is asking the son she’s asking the father to take care of during his visitation while seeing her her ex brings up memories that are still raw. Set to music recalling ABBA’s flirtations with disco, the chorus sticks and the emotion lands.
“I Can Be That Woman” does so as well, but the song here leaves the disco for pure then-lighter/now-cellphone arms waving ballad territory. Fältskog handles the lead vocals with aplomb (she and Lyngstad really sound terrific throughout) as the chorus stays on the right side of the over-the-top line, reminding you of how well the group could combine the melodramatic with the melodic.
Not every moment works, but then again, that was sometimes true of prime ABBA, so they’re consistent in that way as well.
“Little Things”, complete with children’s choir, becomes syrupy enough to induce potential medical complications, enough to somehow earn a place in “diabeetus” memes. It’s less of an album cut than it is a soundtrack for a schmaltzy Christmas commercial from a store or a bank.
Likewise, “Bumblebee” opens with flutes that scream “Hey! We remember ‘Fernando,’ too!” and remains in adult contemporary cheese territory, even with the well-meaning environental concerns in the lyrics.
But then penultimate song “No Doubt About It” follows, with its varied parts recalling their almost rockier side, their synth pop period and their glitzier ready-for-Broadway moments into a joyful whole that holds together and you remember that moments of cheese were always a part of the ABBA experience and there was usually something to enjoy around the corner.
The album wraps with “Ode to Freedom” which is pure Broadway ABBA, albeit with a title taken from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and strings that lovingly owe more than a bit to Tchaikovsky’s waltz from “Swan Lake.”
The last words in the song, thus the last words ever on an ABBA album are “It’s elusive and it’s hard to hold/It’s a fleeting thing/That’s why there is no Ode to Freedom truly worth remembering/I wish someone would write an Ode to Freedom that we all could sing”, in essence offering a hopeful invitation to the pop songwriters to come.
Some of ABBA’s contemporaries on the American pop charts never got the chance to celebrate their critical appraisals or to take a final victory lap. The early deaths of Karen Carpenter and Maurice Gibb kept the Carpenters and Bee Gees, respectively, from being able to do so.
But thankfully for ABBA fans, the four members are still here 40 years later and to not only say “goodbye”, but remind us of why a lot of folks glad they said “hello” in the first place. The jumpsuits and the lipgloss might be virtual, but those lovely vocals and enough of the hooks made the 39-year jump.
Even though it’s hard to turn down a cool billion, it proved to be the right move. Rather than force a reunion to flog old hits, ABBA is going out on its own terms. They stick to what they do well and don’t overload things, keeping the album to 37 minutes.
Enough of Voyage works that it can stand with the initial run without sticking out like a sore thumb. It might not be perfect, but it stands as well-crafted and well-performed proper goodbye that thanks its fans for waiting for the music.
VIDEO: ABBA “I Still Have Faith In You”