ABBA dABBA doo, they´re back !!
but Norman Warwick is still not in step
In my teenage days I hung with The Hollies and Herman´s Hermits, and Dave Dee and his gang but my chronologically-challenged memory tells me that fell apart when the Swedish sensations changed all that. I had friends who suddenly abandoned all the laddish bands we had followed who just suddenly ABBAndoned them all to follow two strange-looking guys and two admittedly beautiful women who all wore strange costumes. Their singles dominated the charts for years, their concerts were sell outs and in the decades since they split up the entertainments has continued to make money from their music. We have had special presentational re-releases as Mama Mia has become a franchise of stage and film. Abba´s single SOS became my own emergency request. I was drowning in a music I couldn´t stand.
It seemed then that suddenly there was no other pop music but Abba, and so I had to look elsewhere for my music. I became turned on to The Byrds, The Eagles, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills and Nash and The Band, the first stepping stones out into the sidetracks & detours of Americana music. I took retrospective diversions to where the singer writers such as Guy Clark (right) gathered ´Like Desperadoes Waiting on a Train´.
I have suddenly become sixty nine years old and am very nearly a grown up. Somewhat belatedly, (that is to say fifty years after the rest of the world) I am beginning to appreciate the quality of the music and wonderful arrangements of ABBA´s old songs.
Of course I am doing so just as the rest of the world, or a few journalists anyway, are giving a bit of a mauling to Voyage, Abba´s first album release for years.
This comeback album, their first body of work in 39 years, has polarised music critics.
Last month, the Swedish pop group delighted fans when they announced they are returning with a revolutionary concert and new album.
Immediately after the announcement, Agnetha Fältskog, 71, Björn Ulvaeus, 76, Benny Andersson, 74, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, 75, released new tracks I Still Have Faith In You and Don’t Shut Me Down – which received rave reviews.
However, critics were not as delighted with the the full album released early in November.
The Guardian’s Jude Rogers awarded the album just two stars, noting: ‘the glamour promised by this album’s two terrific singles goes horribly unfulfilled.’
Jude added: ‘In the past, they excelled when they twisted the sounds of their times in their own way, when they were within glam, disco and electronic pop but also apart from these genres; when their idiosyncrasies elevated them, rather than diminished them.
If only they had stopped at those two knowing songs, leaving the rest to our dazzling imaginations.’
The Telegraph’s Neil McCormick was slightly more generous with a three star rating, but stated the Swedish band had ‘drifted a long way from Waterloo’.
Alas the new music didn’t match up to their greatest hits, as Neil penned: ‘There is nothing here that strikes the pure gold seam of their classic 45s.
‘Voyage is weighed down with too many portentous theatrical ballads and schlager-style romps that sound like minor off-cuts from the Seventies.’
He concluded: ‘Voyage is a gentle OAP cruise around the backwaters of Abba’s reputation. Grandmama Mia! Here we go again.’
NME also awarded three stars as they questioned whether the iconic band’s comeback was ‘more noteworthy than the music itself?’
Nick Levine penned: ‘ABBA have made no attempt to chase contemporary trends here… Instead, they have made an album that sounds reassuringly like ABBA, albeit a more sedate ABBA than you probably remember.’
He didn’t completely rule out the singles, however, noting: ‘There are some bumpy moments along the way, but this Voyage is a nostalgia trip worth taking.’
For The Sydney Morning Herald, Voyage earned just 2.5 stars, with Barry Divola bluntly announcing: ‘The bad news is that there’s a bunch of utter schlock here.’
He added that ABBA’s comeback should have been limited to just their avatar tour, reasoning: ‘It’s a clever idea and a marketing masterstroke – a technological feat, a way to perform without being there, and a “wow” factor for old fans to get a nostalgic dopamine hit. But if taken on songs alone, Voyage should have been a four-track EP. Then we could have said thank you for the music and meant it.’
Not everyone was so underwhelmed by the album, however, with The Independent’s Helen Brown (right) giving Voyage a whopping five stars.
She explained: ‘Fans who’ve heard those songs will know that ABBA haven’t tried to update the gloriously gaudy vintage tinsel of their Eighties office party sound.’
Helen also noted that it was the perfect way for the group to go back into retirement, writing: ‘They’ve owned the traumas and triumphs of their past with admirable honesty on Voyage. It’s a terrific, family-friendly smorgasbord of a record that delivers all the classic ABBA flavours. I think we can let them go now. Tack for the music, guys!’
The Times’ Ed Potton was also a fan, yet not quite so blown away, opting for a four-star rating.
He explained that Voyage may need time to grow on people, penning: ‘Like much of Abba’s back catalogue, these songs can sound naff on first listen, yet you’re pulled in by Benny Andersson’s melodic oomph and Bjorn Ulvaeus’s eccentric lyrical insights.’
Ed added: ‘Faltskog, Ulvaeus, Andersson and Lyngstad are demonstrating the best thing about ageing — not giving a hoot what other people think. So, do they have it in them? On the strength of these ten songs, it’s a resounding yes.’
The Daily Mail’s Adrian Thrills also awarded Voyage four stars, writing: ‘The quartet’s first album since 1981’s The Visitors rekindles the heartfelt storytelling and melodic genius that helped turn the group into one of pop’s greatest success stories.’
He concluded: ‘Whatever side of Abba takes your fancy, there’s something here for you. So, do I like it? I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.’
Voyage is ABBA’s ninth studio album and the follow-up to The Visitors, which was the group’s first final album when it was released in 1984.
Last month, the Swedish group released three singles from their new album, I Still Have Faith In You, Don’t Shut Me Down and Just A Notion, which was recorded in 1978 but didn’t make the cut for their sixth album Voulez-Vous.
ABBA’s comeback songs reached numbers nine, fourteen and 59 in the UK Singles Chart – as well as a number one in their native Sweden.
It comes after the four-piece announced they will retire following the release of their album and the completion of their stage residency.
The pop pioneers originally split up in 1982, but reformed earlier this year to record ninth studio album Voyage and unveil plans for an immersive digital stage show, to be held in Stratford next May.
Band-members Benny and Bjorn insist the reunion is a one-off, with the band unlikely to record more music following the release of Voyage.
Speaking to The Guardian, Benny said: ‘This is it… It’s got to be, you know.’
Touching on the band’s original break-up, which followed almost a decade of chart domination, he added: ‘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.’
The group became household names after winning the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with hit single Waterloo.
They went on to release tracks including Mama Mia!, Dancing Queen, Take a Chance On Me and Thank You For The Music before walking away from the music industry.
The digital versions of the four-piece have been created following weeks and months of motion-capture and performance techniques.
An 850-strong team from Industrial Light & Magic, the company founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas, led the company’s first foray into music.
The foursome previously said they would never reform despite their huge worldwide popularity, and reaching more than 400 million album sales over 50 years.
In an interview with Australia’s A Current Affair, Björn teased: ‘That’s the vision we have, an experience that nobody has ever had in music. You know to sit in the audience on opening night and see this thing, see ourselves… it’s going to be weird and wonderful,’
The singer promises it will be as close to the real thing as possible.
‘It will be us, in the way that we really have infused ourselves in these avatars with movement, with facials expressions, with the voices, all of that stuff makes it, it’s us,’ he told the programme.’
The Waterloo group went their separate ways at the height of their career, and during their final years Björn divorced bandmate Agnetha whilst Benny and Frida split up, too.
They performed together for the first time in decades in 2016 at a private event, which marked the 50th anniversary of the first meeting between songwriters Björn and Benny.
There was always going to be one big question surrounding the release of Abba’s first album in 40 years.
Could the Swedish super troupers come up with songs to hold a candle to classics such as Dancing Queen and Knowing Me, Knowing You?
On the evidence of Voyage, out today, the answer is, by and large, a resounding yes. The quartet’s first album since 1981’s The Visitors rekindles the heartfelt storytelling and melodic genius that helped turn the group into one of pop’s greatest success stories – a band who sold more than 400million albums in their heyday and later captured the hearts of a younger generation through the Mamma Mia jukebox musicals.
There were always two sides to Abba, who confirmed their return in September by announcing Abba Voyage, a series of concerts featuring digital avatars of their younger selves. On the one hand, we had the gleeful, stack-heeled stomp of hits like Waterloo. On the other, there was the melancholy depth of The Winner Takes It All and Slipping Through My Fingers. Both extremes are in play here.
As the band were winding down activities in the early 1980s (they never officially split) they found themselves chasing that decade’s electronic music fashions rather than setting the trends as they once did. But they claim to have worked on Voyage ‘absolutely trend-blind’, thus allowing them to. individually and collectively. play to their traditional strengths.
Several songs here feature a familiar wall of sound built around guitars, keyboards, percussion, orchestral flourishes – and, best of all, Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s peerless vocal blend.
Three of the ten tracks – split evenly between ballads and more upbeat songs – have already been released as singles, and all crop up early in the running order. Power ballad I Still Have Faith In You would make a perfect curtain-raiser when Abba Voyage opens in London next May.
Don’t Shut Me Down frames the band’s quirkier side. The more recently released third single, Just A Notion, is actually an older number. Originally recorded for 1979’s Voulez-Vous LP, and then mystifyingly put back in the vaults, it finds the rich, multi-tracked voices of Anni-Frid and Agnetha (left) in full-on Waterloo mode.
The group recorded a new backing track for the song, but the vocals from the original session are intact. With saxophones to the fore, and Benny belting out his best Fats Domino piano rhythm, it’s one of the catchiest things here.
The two remaining tracks in an upbeat first half are When You Danced With Me, its simpler sounds serving as a reminder of Benny’s roots in Scandinavian folk music, and the kitsch Little Things, a family Christmas song complete with flute, clarinet, children’s choir and a snippet of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. If you found 1976’s Fernando corny, this one might be even harder to stomach.
At their best, though, Abba can still pack a powerful emotional punch. At the core of Voyage are two classic kitchen sink dramas, I Can Be That Woman and Keep An Eye On Dan, that tackle alcohol addiction and divorce.
The band consists of two former married couples (now on good terms) and it’s difficult not to see these songs in terms of their own experiences. I Can Be That Woman is this year’s Winner Takes It All, a big, orchestral ballad about a toxic, alcohol-fuelled relationship – seen partly through the eyes of the warring couple’s pet dog, Tammy.
‘You look frail as you stand before me, then you curse and kick a chair,’ lament the girls. ‘And the dog, bless her heart, licks my fingers, but she jerks every time you swear.’
It’s melodramatic, and ought to be ridiculous, but somehow it manages to be moving. Given that Adele’s forthcoming album contains tracks called Cry Your Heart Out and Love Is A Game, music fans are clearly in for an autumn of big tear-jerkers.
Keep An Eye On Dan is another classic Abba mini-drama. Despite looking at a divorce through the eyes of a child facing the agony of shared custody, it’s musically more upbeat, with booming drums, electronics and, in a clever touch, a brief reprise of Benny’s piano motif from the 1975 hit SOS.
A couple of tracks don’t quite hit the spot. The sentimentality is dialled up to 11 on Bumblebee, and No Doubt About It is Waterloo-lite. But the choral and orchestral piece Ode To Freedom supplies a suitably stately finale to the year’s most eagerly anticipated comeback.
Whatever side of Abba takes your fancy, there’s something here for you. So, do I like it? I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.
The journey to Voyage, Abba’s final studio album and their first in 40 years, began with a tweet from their shiny new Twitter account in August, coaxing people to “join us”. Billboards across London followed, featuring images of a sort of solar eclipse, a glitter ball in a sci-fi silhouette. A week later came news of a 10-track album and a “digital avatar” concert residency in a custom-built London arena. The signs were good. Here was a band alive to their legacy as makers of sparkling pop, but also to the spirit of disco’s futurism, understanding that they had to harness the shock of the new.
In September, one of two album taster tracks, Don’t Shut Me Down, fulfilled this brief exquisitely, morphing 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 motion and glamour – qualities that felt wildly attractive in our messy, mid-Covid times. And so it is hard to reckon with the disappointment that Abba’s ninth album delivers, as it prefers to languish in often bafflingly retrograde settings.
It begins with I Still Have Faith in You, the other taster track released in September. An epic example of the “bittersweet song” Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog refer to in the lyric – in their different, yet still lovely, older voices – its meditation on how to confront and own the ageing process is precision-tailored, in glistening silver thread. The opening, elegiac string phrase yearns for resolution throughout, before returning wistfully in the song’s final bars. The second verse’s soft drum rolls (by Per Lindvall, veteran of Super Trouper and The Visitors) are among many fine, musical details that urge the women on. It is, admittedly, a little cheesy, but its tenderness still feels triumphant.
But rather than reflecting poignantly on the past, much of the rest of Voyage feels terminally 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’s spent years waiting for him to return, we’re told; presumably she’s oblivious to the existence in Ireland of train routes, driving tests or text messages. The Celtic-leaning melody in the intro recalls Abba’s incursions into other global settings, such as the Mexican battlefields in Fernando, or the Spanish-Peruvian musical moodboards of Chiquitita. The overall effect doesn’t prompt folkloric nostalgia, but mild nausea.
Then comes the album’s big crime against sense, sentimentality and sequencing, Little Things, a Christmas song shoved in at track three. All about the delights of the season, it includes a children’s choir singing about their grandma (the St Winifred’s school singers would sound like rebel punks in comparison), but also, in a jolting juxtaposition, intimations about mum and dad’s sex life. Particularly weird is the implication of a grim transactional quality behind a romantic gesture. “You’d consider bringing me a breakfast tray, but there’s a price,” Lyngstad sings, having noticed her partner’s “naughty eyes”.
Somebody needs to tell her she can still get a ´full english´ for less than a fiver in some establishments-
Admittedly, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (left) have never been the most enlightened lyricists on the feminism front. One of Us and Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) are two Abba songs among many featuring a fraught woman desperate for any man to pop along and quick-fix her loneliness. Now four decades have passed, and one can’t help but despair at the chorus of I Can Be That Woman (“You’re not the man you should’ve been / I let you down somehow”) and that’s after its terrible lyrical twist about a female her husband is sleeping with, who turns out to be … a dog. Keep An Eye On Dan offers another miserable monologue from a pining divorcee, spoiling its fantastic mixture of Visitors-era iciness and Voulez-Vous-era disco propulsion.
Ulvaeus recently said these songs were written “absolutely trend-blind”. It shows. Including tracks such as the rejected 1978 single Just a Notion (a reminder of early, jangly Abba glam, but nothing more) and Bumblebee (a naive attempt to say something universal about climate change) makes you doubt their quality control. At least Voyage’s finale, Ode to Freedom, hints at a grand, closing statement, pastiching and stretching a phrase from a waltz in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But then its lyric talks about the futility of writing an ode that’s worth remembering, which leaves an odd note, especially when we’re talking about a band whose songs are known around the world.
“If I ever write my ode to freedom / It will be in prose that chimes with me,” it concludes. Maybe it’s a reference to the female members’ preference for privacy, or even Abba’s determination to keep creating their unusual song structures in their Swedish reading of English – but it also suggests Abba feel they can exist in their own bubble. They can’t. In the past, they excelled when they twisted the sounds of their times in their own way, when they were within glam, disco and electronic pop but also apart from these genres; when their idiosyncrasies elevated them, rather than diminished them. If only they had stopped at those two knowing songs, leaving the rest to our dazzling imaginations.
So the music media, that all sang from the same hymn sheet back in the real Abba years, are now cacophonous rather than harmonious but in Strictly terms ´the scores are in.´
But you can change all that. To make sure your favourite Dancing Queen doesn´t slip into the bottom two and face a dance off, purchase a copy of Voyage. Your vote counts.
- Abba Voyage opens at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on May 27, 2022. More tickets were released yesterday, with bookings until December 4, 2022.
The primary sources for this article were an article by Jude Rogers in The Guardian and by Adrian Thrills in The Daily Mail and others summarised by Rebecca Lawrence at Mail on line and others attributed within our editorial
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