By now, even those under rocks and in the far-flung nether regions of space know that ABBA are back. Well, sort of. They’ve released a new album – their first in forty years – and from a group as legendary as the disco-dwelling Swedes, it’s a pretty big deal. To accompany the release of their ninth studio release (Voyage, which follows 1981’s The Visitors, an album that marked the band’s breakup – professionally and personally), ABBA have announced a concert residency for next year, at the custom built ‘ABBA Arena’ in London. It’s avatars instead of people, holograms instead of the real thing. But the closest anyone can really get to seeing the band in the flesh.
And whilst they’ll be singing and dancing to hours of our favourite classics, one has to stop and ask whether their first new material in nearly half a century is actually any good or not. There are those who rave that it stands up beside staples like Waterloo or Voulez-Vous. But there are some who deem it a disappointing nostalgia-fest. The Guardian, for instance, gave Voyage a wincing two-stars.
Ultimately, your verdict on ABBA’s latest voyage comes down to whether you preferred the band’s frothy, carefree pop anthems or slower, tear-jerking ballads. ‘Summer Night City’ or ‘The Winner Takes It All’. The album works best when it tries to retain the casual carelessness of the former. And yet it remains plagued by the latter, sadly.
The album opens easily enough with one of the first teasers we got, ‘I Still Have Faith In You’. And if all of Voyage was like this, I couldn’t complain. It’s a wonderfully crafted ballad from Andersson and Ulvaeus; perfectly showing the fusion of ‘Old ABBA’ meets ‘New ABBA’. Clearly a rose-tinted reflection on the band’s relationships with eachother through thick and thin, it proves one of the best on the album.
‘When You Danced With Me’ sees the band returning to the folky, Celtic mysticality of their Arrival days, in a simplistic tune with all the guilty pomp-and-circumstance we wanted from the group. I have no doubt that this will become one of the most forgotten from the record, but it’s a real gem. The song that follows, however, is no such diamond in the rough.
‘Little Things’ takes the crown for the most noteworthy track on the album, and entirely for bad reasons. From positive reviews to slander pieces, the consensus is that ‘Little Things’ is awful. And it really is. It’s cheek-devouringly bad, a shameless attempt at a Christmas anthem, complete with school choir and the reek of desperation. I only hope to God this never sees the light of day on the band’s impending ‘ABBAtar’ tour. This belongs shoved at the back of the cupboard, under the scourers and dishwasher tablets.
‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ and ‘Just A Notion’, thankfully, put us back on the track. The latter is an outtake from the group’s Voulez-Vous days – which is probably why it sounds the most like ABBA. But both have that disco-esque jive I really wanted from Voyage. It’s a bittersweet reminder that the group have still got something. They haven’t lost it all, and there’s a reason they’ve nurtured such legendary status.
‘I Can Be That Woman’, meanwhile, stinks of a time long ago when you could just write a song about a woman needing a man. And that’s fine, if the song is at least empowering in its rhythm and dancefloor swagger. Unfortunately, it’s a boringly literal ballad that stops the disco fever in its tracks.
I do, however, quite adore ‘Keep An Eye On Dan’. It’s one of the best songs on Voyage by far, with a synth solo toward the end that’s among the group’s best. Ever. The last few bars even echo the titanic sorrow-song of ‘SOS’. My gripe with the song, however, is that it feels the need to touch on a mother handing over her son to his father for a weekend. It’s… niche, even for ABBA, and lacking any joyful swing. It also makes for some of their lousiest lyrics.
‘Bumblebee’ is, as others have surmised, ABBA taking on climate change, really. And while their ABBAtar suits might resemble something out an incredibly ‘70s, science-fiction movie about a team of Swedish scientists setting off to colonise a new planet (because our own is dying), the song has none of that same cheesy vigour. It’s incredibly middle-of-the-road. Not bad, but by the standards of a band who have produced a staggering nine number one’s in the UK alone, fairly lacklustre. ‘Bumblebee’ is a sting in my mind that tells me the band shouldn’t have hyped Voyage up quite so much. It was almost doomed to fail under the weight of its inadequate wings.
‘No Doubt About It’, at least, attempts to capture the pulsing party beat of ‘Summer Night City’. And yet, somehow it fails. For one of the most thumping tracks on Voyage, it’s depressingly forgettable. I keep feeling like it’s going to turn up to eleven, to go further than it should. It’s a beast in a cage, but the steel is holding. I don’t really know what that means, either, but that’s how I feel about most of this record, to be fair.
But we’re at track ten. The closer of what will almost certainly be ABBA’s final album. They’ve saved the best till last, surely? A track so good, so perfect, that I’ll forget all about the bees and the child custody? No. ‘Ode to Freedom’ is the weakest of the bunch. It’s ‘dirgey’, as my mum lovingly described it – not really going anywhere and fast becoming the worst track of their entire discography. It’s also spectacularly cringeworthy, with the ABBA girls lamenting that there’s not a good enough ‘ode to freedom’ (‘I wish someone would write/ An ode to freedom that we all could sing’). Whatever that means. The only saving grace is that I fast became disinterested enough to ignore what was being said altogether.
Voyage is quite a disappointment. But it also packs just enough highs to save itself from being banished to the shadow realm, musically. With all creatures, age begins to show the wear and tear, the flaws – chinks in the band’s shimmering armour. Forty years for the Swedes has told us that their cardinal sin in songwriting is how literal they are.
One thinks of ‘The Day Before You Came’, from 1981’s The Visitors. The lyrics are an unstoppable stream of what Agnetha’s done over the course of a day (‘There’s not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn’t see’). But at least it’s got a contagious tune. ‘Keep An Eye On Dan’, meanwhile, is just woefully retrospective – ‘I pull over and turn off the car/ And I bang the wheel… And don’t forget I’ll be back on Sunday to get him’. Or take ‘I Can Be That Woman’. ‘Then you curse and kick a chair/ And the dog, bless her heart, licks my fingers’.
The songs become mind-numbingly arduous recounts of what ABBA happen to have done that day, and immediately the songs become forgettable – when otherwise there might be something to salvage. The words are hollow, without resonance. Even the catchy, light-hearted showbiz choruses are drowned out by police witness-level explanations. ABBA have always produced meringues. Songs that have little substance, but enough pop to get you jiving, nonetheless. Look at ‘On and On and On’, or ‘So Long’. They’re made to soak up and dance to. No one expects ‘keep on rocking baby, till the night is gone’ to be a philosophy. But these tracks? They’re not even close.
The band themselves have said they don’t really care whether people like Voyage or not. And why should they? They’ve made enough money and fans to ignore pretty much everyone. ABBA have carved out a legacy even the biggest of bands could only dream about. But at least if they made this last hurrah awful – something utterly without artistic sanity – that would be something. If I loved it or hated it, it would be notable. An event. Something tangible to cling onto. I’d have a strong reaction to it either way.
But that’s not at all what Voyage is. Voyage is just sort of… okay, and that’s the most crushing disappointment of all. It’s far from ‘Super Trouper’ or ‘Mamma Mia’, but it’s not so bad that I want it purged and burned in a mass bonfire of vinyl and plastic. Voyage isn’t flawless enough to rewrite the history books, and not the kind of bad that warrants a retrospective review in thirty years. Quite simply, it’s ABBA fizzling out instead of flickering with dignity. And there’s no doubt about it.