Nearly 40 years ago, Abba were in the studio for one last time, to cut a tragic ballad called “The Day Before You Came.” They knew this was goodbye; both couples in the group had finalized their divorces. Agnetha Fältskog recited a bleak tale of total emotional isolation, words scripted by her ex-husband, doing her vocals in a darkened studio with all the lights out. It was the last thing they ever recorded. A splendidly melodramatic finale for this most melodramatic of pop groups. And that—as far as the world knew—was that for Abba. Until now.
So how the hell did this happen? The Swedish super troupers ride again with Voyage, and there’s never been a comeback story like this one: all four original members of a great pop band, reuniting after 40 years apart, with all their powers intact. This album would be a one-of-a-kind historic event even if the songs blew—but it’s vintage Abba, on par with their classic 1970s run. It evokes the days when the Norse gods ruled the radio, combining two of the Seventies’ hottest trends: heartbreak and sequin-studded pantsuits.
For Bjorn, Benny, Anna-Frid and Agnetha, their last album was the 1981 gem The Visitors, a frosty electro concept album of synth-pop paranoia and mid-life despair. Their tunes were as cheery and bouncy on the surface as prime Elton John, making them the world’s best-selling act, but loaded with Leonard Cohen levels of angst. Who else would put a song called “Disillusion” on their first album?
But since then, the Abba legacy has just kept booming. Each generation falls in love with their hits all over again. They helped invent goth—you can’t imagine Joy Division or the Cure or Berlin-era Bowie without “S.O.S.” They taught Kurt Cobain how to write hooks. If the pop-star scale goes from “obscure” to “legendary,” Abba zoom right off the chart and land on “Cher tribute album, right after the scene in *Mamma Mia 2* where she steps out of a helicopter to belt ‘Fernando.’”
Voyage piles on the tragic drama—it’s a whole album of “The Winner Takes It All,” without any “Mamma Mia” or “Take a Chance On Me.” They were always in love with adult gloom, going back to the divorced-mom power chords of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” or “Hey Hey Helen.” As Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone in 1982, when he shocked the world by coming out as an Abba fan, “Abba was one of the first big international bands to actually deal with sort of middle-aged problems in their songwriting.” And that was in their younger days. Now that they’re all past 70, they haven’t exactly lost their appetite for emotional-crisis soundtracks.
As always, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson write the songs, but now they leave the singing to the ladies, Faltskog and Anna-Frid Lyngstad. They put Voyage together while plotting their 2022 “virtual” live residency in London. These concerts won’t have mere holograms—instead, they’ve got what Benny and Bjorn call “Abba-tars.”
“Don’t Shut Me Down” is the prize of the new tunes: Agnetha prowls outside her ex’s home, waiting for the right moment to knock on his door for the first time in years and seduce him. It’s a completely over-the-top scenario—just Abba’s specialty—in the style of their Seventies disco bangers, complete with “Dancing Queen” piano frills. Agnetha takes satisfaction in noticing that her ex hasn’t redecorated since she left, because “These rooms were witness to our love / My tantrums and increasing frustration.” (Could there be a more Abba lyric? No, there could not.)
“No Doubt About It” goes for Eighties synth glitz, while “Just a Notion” is a frisky Seventies leftover—a Voulez Vous outtake with vocals recorded in 1978. The fact that vocal tracks from four decades ago fit seamlessly with the new ones—it’s a tribute to Abba’s obsessive machine-tooled precision. “I Could Be That Woman” is a lavish ballad where a woman watches her estranged lover cuddle someone named Tammy—it turns out to be his dog. The couple argues (“You say you’ve had it and you say ‘screw you’”), while the dog watches and judges them. The dog might be the most emotionally stable character on the album. But like all the couples in these songs, this one has a long, tortured history with no happy ending in sight. You can’t say Abba don’t stay true to their vision.
It wouldn’t be an authentic Abba album without some stomach-churning filler, so beware before you brave the Christmas ditty “Little Things.” But otherwise, Voyage reflects how far these four have traveled, musically and emotionally. There’s no embarrassing attempt to get up to date with the bops the kids are into these days, a compliment to their integrity. Instead of chasing trends, they stick to the classic sound they perfected years ago, the sound that has kept influencing modern pop ever since. As they once sang, the history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.
When the woman in “Don’t Shut Me Down” knocks on that guy’s door, her greeting is, “I would believe it’s fair to say you look bewildered.” And indeed, it’s a surprise to have these Swedes back in the game. But it’s a bigger, sweeter surprise that they returned so full of musical vitality. All these years after “Waterloo,” Abba still refuse to surrender.
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