Credit: Baillie Walsh
by Ayeen Forootan Music Pop Rocks

ABBA | Voyage

December 24, 2021

ABBA’s return with Voyage proves the iconic pop quartet still has more to say.

Since their split in 1982, it’s possible that not even the most optimistic of ABBA’s fans could think that one day they’d be able to see the Swedish superstar, pop-disco foursome — legendarily comprised of Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus — back together again. Although it’s quite possible that ABBA’s most ardent fans never completely lost hope for a possible long-awaited reunion, it wasn’t until 2016 that the members announced their interest in performing a virtual concert. It held the promise of a history-making phenomenon, one which was at first repeatedly delayed for various reasons, and then because of the pandemic. And so, although ABBA had since declared that they had a couple of fresh songs at the ready, the ultimate announcement of their new album, Voyage, accompanied by a same-name special tour, was still surprising enough even to inspire considerable emotion in pop music enthusiasts across the globe. And indeed, even upon a first spin of the group’s ninth studio album (which consists of unreleased material both new and old), one can easily hear — and more profoundly, feel — the qualities that defined ABBA’s singular and joyful pop for the past couple generations. And so, if the group’s sound here can be regarded as entirely untimely, considering the contemporary music climate, given their imprint on the popular music lexicon, Voyage still feels as appropriately timeless.

Opening with the slow ballad “I Still Have Faith in You,” it’s as if ABBA purposely positions itself as a phoenix from the ashes. As much as the track appears to take the shape of a romantic confessional, it also directly addresses the history of the group itself, its members rekindling their relationship with each other and the group with their faithful fanbase: “I still have faith in you / I see it now / Through all these years that faith lives on” and “But I remind myself / Of who we are / How inconceivable it is to reach this far.” And when the slow, heartwarming verses burst into crescendo (“We do have it in us / New spirit has arrived / The joy and the sorrow / We have a story and it survived”), the song soars, as if the moment of reconciliation is complete and the time for celebration come. Alongside “I Still Have Faith in You,” the two other singles from Voyage can likewise be regarded as instant ABBA classics. Both “Don’t Shut Me Down” and “Just a Notion” demonstrate that, after four decades, the incomparable duo of Andersson and Ulvaeus still are able to compose catchy, well-structured melodies with nifty arrangements while Anni-Frid and Agnetha (whether in solo or duet) handle the beautiful, seraphic vocals even as their ranges have naturally weathered and aged. If the energetic “Don’t Shut Me Down” showcases some of the most bittersweet lyrical moments on the album (e.g., “A while ago, I heard the sound of children’s laughter / Now it’s quiet, so I guess they left the park / This wooden bench is getting harder by the hour / The sun is going down, it’s getting dark” or “Once these rooms were witness to our love / My tantrums and increasing frustration / But I go from mad, to not so bad / In my transformation”) cut through with upbeat danceability, “Just a Notion” in turn reveals some of Andersson’s finest piano work, reminiscent of his virtuosity in a classic like “Chiquitita.”

Even if not all the songs here can be equally of the same size and status — and their significance can differ from one audience to another — they still do follow ABBA’s standard. That’s not to say that Voyage is absent any slighter ditties, but these lesser tracks still frequently hold minor pleasures. “When You Danced with Me” and “Bumblebee” (both with panpipes in the intro and outro that wink to the song “Fernando”) are as much simple, sweet Northern European folk as “Little Things” is a delicate, delightful Christmas carol that wraps itself within the sounds of The Children’s Choir of Stockholm International School. Elsewhere, “I Can Be That Woman” is a pseudo-surreal story about a dog and a struggling couple with some of the oddest and most farcical lines ABBA’s ever produced (“And you say, “screw you” / I say, “I love you” / And I know it’s true”). Or, the kitschy “Keep an Eye on Dan,” which plays like a bizarre mix of the group’s “S.O.S” with a very slight “Jingle Bells” undertone in the chorus: “Keep an eye on Dan / Promise me you can.

But the Swedish quartet leaves two of their most sturdy compositions on this record for last. Concluding with another retro ‘70s disco boogie (“No Doubt About It”) and a work of majestic orchestration (“Ode to Freedom”) — landing somewhere between inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” waltz and the opera choir of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” — ABBA again demonstrate why they are considered one of the most influential and unique pop groups of all-time. Thematically, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to dub Voyage as one of the group’s most mature outputs (if not their most), the record constantly confronting concepts of past joys, regrets, and hardships. Indeed, the pop icons confidently and intentionally never strive to overhaul or contemporize themselves artistically — nor do they take a huge swing and skew for any ostentatious experimentalism, but instead remain faithful to the sounds and character that launched them to prominence, beginning the day they captured the minds and hearts of audiences with “Waterloo” at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. Perhaps this is the best way to put it, then: ABBA is back after 40 years, and what’s special about Voyage is that it makes it seem like they never left.

Published as part of Album Roundup — November 2021 | Part 3.