ABBA Release Voyage — But Is It an Arrival?

A star peaks over the horizon of a dark planet on the cover of ABBA's Voyage

ABBA have nothing to prove at this point, do they? Benny said so himself. They have huge sales, they’ve crisscrossed the globe doing it live and their songwriting craft is now revered in certain quarters.

But it isn’t just about the music. This is a soap opera. 40 years since the last ABBA album The Visitors and they are back with Voyage. And there’s more than just a reunion. They were in relationships.

ABBA in the 'I Still Have Faith In You' video
From the ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ video

Which didn’t endure. That personal story will delight some. Benny told the BBC, ‘I don’t think we need to prove anything here…if people think we were better 40 years ago, fine.’

That’s exactly the right attitude. But it isn’t just about the music, is it?

‘So with anticipation I went into the studio to meet with the others because it’s always fun to work together with them… a little bit tense maybe, but we also decided on: if it doesn’t go well then we don’t have to release it,’ Anna-Frid said to Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2.

She later went on to say that once they were in the studio, it felt like coming back home and that it was good to have fun with Agnetha, who she called her sister. The headline was about tension though. It’s bound to be.

This ABBA album, Voyage, can never be just about songs. This is about can they get along? Will they stay together? Does this music measure up?

Ah, that’s a problem too. Rock, meet hard place.

Hacks like me will compare the music with what’s in the charts at the moment and then decide whether it’s as good as what they used to do. The former is a lower bar. The latter is as large as Everest.

See, I’m about to do it now.

Voyage sounds…tentative. And that’s not surprising, considering the non-musical issues around the album, but I want ‘Waterloo‘! Or at least ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do‘ (is that enough?).

And so I accept the following comments will be somewhat due to my inability to manage my expectations.

But not all.

Here goes. Easing us in, that’s probably the best choice—no good kicking the doors open and saying ‘erm…hi…’—‘I Still Have Faith In You’ gives us some judicious strings among the piano, and Anna-Frid and Agnetha’s doubled voices are as soft as melting butter.

ABBA in the 'I Still Have Faith In You' video
ABBA in the ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ video

They naturally have a deeper feel now and that only adds to the cossetting. It’s a good feeling.

Followed by a dance, a bit of a Scottish reel actually, which is not quite as welcome, this is ‘When You Danced With Me’. And ‘Little Things’ is undeniably Christmassy, a singsong melody and piping synths which some will take to their heart in this November cool, but I’m a little Grinchy.

There’s a bit too much of this stuff, to be honest, like the echo of ‘Chiquitita’ in the synth line to ‘Bumblebee’ which is a about the honey hoovering insects and walks a very thin line between ecological danger due to wipe out and ‘look at the sweet bumblebee’.

Now, it isn’t all sweetness and light, there’s some dancing about too. It just doesn’t clear the dance floor and prance through the middle whilst people clap jealously, nor does it hang by the bar listlessly sipping a mojito.

No, this wants to dance, but looks at the dancers for the right time—no jostling, no cheap sounds. And who can blame them?

They’ve had a tale to tell. ABBA have lived the lives of 10 (OK, 5) and invested emotionally. They don’t need to announce themselves, to say ‘look at me’.

And so the growling bass and echoing synth of ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ makes way for a sparkling chorus, the oddly titled ‘Keep an Eye on Dan’ boasts some bubbly synths to keep you moving, and with ‘Just A Notion’, well, this starts in Rockabilly and swings and sways with horns, just like they used to and with no winks or nods.

That’s what we have all over modern Soul and chart Dance, irony. If used cleverly, to comment on the disposable nature of so many chart tracks. Often though, it stands as a fallback position if things don’t quite work.

ABBA are all in. It should be noted that there’s no filter. They may have been reserved personally and had their fame at a time when there was some limit to fan interaction.

But musically they were either joyous or heavy hearted—fans reacted to this and quite right.
It’s telling that their press junket has been done partially with virtual avatars who look like Bjorn, Benny, Anna-Frid and Agnetha as they were in their pomp.

That’s playful and if the music doesn’t have a filter, this may have. Playfulness is probably best, it just dances away from the larger expectations.

So, is Voyage a disappointment?

All depends who you are. For those who don’t really know ABBA, it isn’t Pop enough or chart ballad perfection.

For those who remember the band, it happens to be less than they have been, as if they are easing their way back in, emerging to the flashbulbs blinking in the light. For others who remember them, ABBA are back! And that’s enough.

And will the reunion sustain?

They say not. And they say never say never. The former? Benny told The Guardian as reported in The Independent: ‘This is it,” Andersson said. ‘It’s got to be, you know.’

The latter? Anna-Frid telling Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2: ‘I have learned to say never to say never’.

And Benny also added to his comment above to the BBC, ‘But I’m not alone in this. There are four of us. If they twist my arm, I might change my mind.’

The Bs have main control in this. Bjorn and Benny write the music although the reunion could only have happened without the agreement of the two As who are absolutely needed. It sometimes seems a brittle arrangement.

ABBA in the 'I Still Have Faith In You' video
Credit, screenshot from the video.

The Guardian said; ‘The 10 new songs on Voyage were written, in Ulvaeus’ words, “absolutely trend-blind”—deliberately ignoring whatever developments have taken place in pop over the years since the band’s demise.’

But you can’t control the feelings of others and that’s the issue, whether you try to emulate the current sounds or go back to your past, the punters may want something else.

Bjorn may tell The Guardian, ‘because in contemporary stuff, there’s nothing to feel I could hang on to, nothing I could emulate’; others may not progress your view.

So will this comeback make a ripple?

Let’s wait and see what happens with the concerts, the ABBAtar digital experience which is due for March 2022. That might solidify things a little. But the album?

It hasn’t stopped the world on its axis, there are mixed reviews and things have moved on. In today’s tough times, running back to a safe place is important and people almost inevitably return. We are a long way from the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over tour.

Perhaps it was the right time for ABBA to come back. Perhaps it wasn’t. People seem to have taken it in their stride. The Voyage postcard remains propped on the mantlepiece for many, framed for others.

Written by Steve Swift

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