It barely needs to be said by now that the return in 2021 of ABBA with an entire album, after almost 40 years professionally apart, is an unprecedented cultural event. The hopes and fears projected onto this, in today’s terms, very neat and concise package of songs, are almost comparable to what might happen if Elvis Presley finally rose from his grave and announced a cadaverous comeback concert. Can they possibly produce a set of songs that will satisfy everybody?
The easy response is to simply state “no”, relax, and take it from there. Overall, Voyage is an odd mixed-bag of styles and subject matter, not all of which completely work. But then, if we’re really honest, hasn’t this in fact been what has always made an ABBA album special and enduring – the refusal to stick to a limited formula even if you get something you don’t like?
I Still Have Faith In You, launched as the main trailer, at least gets the donkey work of expectation management out the way from the outset. It tries to pre-empt the concerns of ABBA’s audience head-on at one bombastic stroke and, as the ultimate haven’t-we-come-a-long-way pop band narrative, dumps all over anything similar Gary Barlow might write. Trying to encapsulate all the big, human emotions (both theirs and ours) unearthed through this momentous return is no mean feat, and as such is a brave endeavour. The song juxtaposes grandeur and heroism alongside humility and doubt, but what makes it such an effective tear-jerker is how it gives voice to the solidarity of the four members reuniting at this unlikely late stage in life. Another of its nobler features is laying bare how time has changed the two female voices, by bringing them down to the bottom of their registers and giving space for them to be fully heard in the verses in all their fragility. Unfortunately, with its power chords and crashing drums, the album opener is just one example of where the production leans towards an unwelcome stodginess that ABBA largely managed to deftly avoid during their initial tenure.
It’s followed by When You Danced With Me, an otherwise winning tune that revives the pipe and flute embellishments from ABBA’s folksier tunes, such as Fernando, Move On or Arrival. Like much of their songwriting, its lyrics plays on the tension between the complications of city and the simpler pleasures of rural life, but, lord, does it have to sound quite so leaden? Benny Andersson has stated how the songwriting duo didn’t attempt to bring the ABBA sound up-to-date by listening to any contemporary music, but the dated thumping peak-’80s rock dynamics here threaten to drag the whole thing down. Some ABBA fans have hoped and speculated that Voyage might partly involve a return to the point where we left them in 1982.
Some of this late-career work (in the The Visitors album and brilliant, spare final songs like The Day Before You Came) suggested a future sailing thrillingly into some chillier waters, where the trademark Nordic melancholy might chime well with the new wave of synth pop. Of all the songs here, Don’t Shut Me Down, the most chart successful of their recent singles, sounds like it might have come straight off Opus 10, the name given by fans to the mythological, post-Visitors album that was abandoned halfway through. It’s immediately reminiscent of their last big hit One of Us, in the way that it slightly speeds up that song’s chugging cod-reggae (although the pervasive stodginess leaves its mark here too). It’s not their best work, but it has at least proved to have the hooks to become a global hit, an achievement in itself in these deep-streaming times. The more intriguing aspect of the track is how it works rather like a belated sequel to the post-breakup scenario One Of Us. It’s not difficult to imagine the older song’s narrator returning, perhaps months later, in the new one with renewed confidence.
This is just one of the many ways that Voyage encourages the listener to make connections back and forth between present and past, although bringing in Just A Notion (a buffed-up outtake from the Voulez-Vous sessions) plays a dangerous game by pitting old material against new. Its inclusion will also no doubt ignite a few debates about whether other beloved unreleased songs could or should have been finished off (the late-era Just Like That, for example). No easy fit for the more streamlined disco train of Voulez-Vous, the track (a gloriously goofy boogie-woogie throwback to the likes of Waterloo and So Long) finds a more comfortable home on the pot-pourri of Voyage. As with many ABBA songs, if you squint at it from a far, there’s also a hidden darker subtext lurking within (is singer actually an unstable fantasist bordering on obsession?).
Listeners may, however, be left wondering what has happened to the urgent disco of Gimme Gimme Gimme or Summer Night City, and the lack thereof is a conspicuously missed opportunity in the current disco revivalist musical climate. The closest we get is Keep An Eye On Dan, which has the most unusual premise of all the lyrics on the album, exploring the separation anxieties felt by a mother sending her child off for the weekend for a first visit alone with her former partner. The musical idea, to turn the situation into a pulse-racing melodrama (with continual references to the melody of S.O.S.), is interesting – ambitious even – but doesn’t quite hit its target. Let’s face it, Andersson and Ulvaeus have always indulged in some dangerously quirky songwriting – just listen for evidence to The Visitors’ Two For The Price Of One, a tale of a man’s frustrated attempts to chase a threeway through a dating agency. History has demonstrated that they got away with pretty much all their weird choices, with the unlikely result being a pop catalogue that is now universally revered rather than being mocked, or raised onto a kitsch curio pedestal.
The resilience of their material is testament to the sheer craft in songwriting and arrangement, but, boy, are they pushing the whimsy at times on Voyage. Take Bumblebee, a confection that features lyrics like “he’s just a tiny fuzzy ball and I wonder how he can fly at all”. It’s borderline cute, but hardly what anybody really asked for from an ABBA songwriting reunion. At one point, it all gets far too cloying, in the shape of the much-anticipated Christmas song Little Things. It may be a beautifully-constructed musical bonbon, like everything else on the album, but the deluge of sugar syrup verges on the nauseating. It begs for a gust of the band’s trademark Nordic melancholy to blow through somewhere, as at least happens in spades in ABBA’s first ever try at a tear-jerking country ballad. True to its song-type, I Can Be That Woman shamelessly tugs at the heart strings in a tale of the avenues-not-taken and regrets that have infected a long-term relationship. The hope that the song ultimately finds is incandescent, and what makes the narrative truly special (and comparable to other messy redemption love songs like The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York) is how it is embellished by some surprising and very entertaining turns (involving an empathetic dog, and the deliciousness of hearing Agnetha sing “screw you”).
The album bows out with its most unexpected and arguably best moment. Ode To Freedom is the song that perhaps that demonstrates best where ABBA might actually have ended up had they stayed together, and as such feels like the most authentic expression of what these elder statespeople might want to make now in their mid-70s. With the passing of time, the pervasive influence of the European romantic classical tradition on their songwriting has only become clearer, underscored by Andersson’s recent confessions that he goes to bed with Bach and now only listens to classical music. Ode To Freedom dares to lean fully into this – it’s a stately yet deceptively complex march that flips between triple and quadruple time, whose understated song lyrics are the polar opposite of the grandstanding emotions in I Still Have Faith In You. The examination of freedom here doesn’t just sound archly European (a Swedish alternative to the official EU anthem of Ode To Joy perhaps?), but encapsulates the Swedish national trait of modesty, enshrined in the informal social code of Jantelagen. It’s welcome confirmation that, although Voyage is mostly geared towards giving audiences the vintage time capsule they desire, we are still being invited to imagine other possibilities. We’ll never know quite what other branching musical timelines could have been possible in the ABBA multiverse, but Ode To Freedom at least gives us a tantalising glimpse.