It’s still kind of hard to believe that the new ABBA album even exists. The group’s revival began way back in 1992 with Erasure‘s chart-topping ‘Abba-esque’ EP, then gathered momentum when their songs featured in the cult 1994 films Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It then snowballed, of course, with 1999’s enormously successful Mamma Mia! jukebox musical and its subsequent spin-off movies. You know your music has claimed a unique place in pop culture when Meryl Streep makes a cameo as a ghost singing one of your deep cuts.
ABBA could have cashed in at any point – it was reported in 2000 that they turned down a $1 billion tour offer, though they said recently that this deal never reached them – but they never saw any need to. “Money is not a factor, and we would like people to remember us as we were: young, exuberant, full of energy and ambition,” ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus said in 2008. So this new studio album – the group’s first since 1981’s brilliant ‘The Visitors’ and their ninth overall – feels like a genuine pop miracle.
‘Voyage’ came about after the four band members reconvened in 2018 to record two new songs for a planned TV special. This was later scrapped in favour of next year’s innovative ‘ABBA Voyage’ residency, which will see a digital version of the band performing alongside live musicians at a purpose-built east London venue. Evidently, somewhere along the way, songwriter-producers Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and lead singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad reignited their old creative spark long enough for two new songs to grow into this 10-track album.
The music it contains is less surprising than the comeback itself, though. ABBA have made no attempt to chase contemporary trends here – “I don’t mind Drake, I just don’t know what modern pop artists are doing,” Andersson said tellingly at September’s reunion press conference. Instead, they have made an album that sounds reassuringly like ABBA, albeit a more sedate ABBA than you probably remember. The disco-tinged single ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ and a galloping banger called ‘No Doubt About It’ take the album into reasonably upbeat territory, but nothing here will fill dance floors like ‘Voulez Vous’ or ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’.
The album actually begins a little disappointingly when ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ – the cheesier of their two recent singles – gives way to the twee Irish folk song ‘When You Danced With Me’. The melodies are undeniable, but it’s hard not to wonder why four Swedes who haven’t made music together in 40 years are singing about a village fair in Kilkenny. Then comes ‘Little Things’, a twinkly Christmas song that’s sickly-sweet even before they bring in a children’s choir. Frankly, it would feel even more mawkish if it weren’t for the poignancy in Fältskog and Lyngstad’s beautifully mature voices.
Thankfully, ‘Voyage’ then finds its way with ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ and ‘Just A Notion’, a harmony-drenched gem that was originally demoed in 1978 before being dusted off and finally finished for this album. The middle section contains some gleaming examples of the sophisticated songwriting that defined back-in-the-day ABBA classics like ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’. ‘I Can Be That Woman’ is an impressively spare ballad about romantic reconciliation, while the electro-flecked ‘Keep An Eye On Dan’ offers a devastating insight into co-parenting following a divorce. “Dan” isn’t an ex, but the young son who’s just been dropped off with his dad. “Certain that I’m out of sight, I pull over and turn off the car / And I bang the wheel,” Fältskog sings affectingly.
Meanwhile, the melodramatic banger ‘No Doubt About It’ captures the queasy thrill of having a massive row with your partner (“There I go, stomping my feet like a child!”). On these songs, the knowledge that ABBA’s line-up comprises not one but two former couples only heightens the emotional charge. There’s also a slight element of wish fulfilment, perhaps, in Ulvaeus and Andersson writing lyrics like “but he is a good man” for their ex-wives to sing.
‘Bumble Bee’, a bucolic ballad punctuated with ‘Fernando’-style flutes, is another twee trifle, but at least there’s an intriguing hint of climate change angst in its lyrics. “It’s quite absurd this summer morning / To think we could be trapped / Inside a world where all is changing / Too fast for bumblebees to adapt,” Lyngstad sings.
By the time the album ends with the suitably stately ‘Ode To Freedom’, ABBA’s fundamental charm has won you over. There are some bumpy moments along the way, but this ‘Voyage’ is a nostalgia trip worth taking.
Release date: November 5
Release label: Universal