Gimme, gimme, gimme
It is time, once again, to take a chance on Abba
There had been rumours for some time, usually expressed breathlessly in the tabloids. “Abba are definitely returning this year!” I have heard some variant on this so often that it seemed more likely that David Bowie would be returning from the dead, Lazarus-like, grinning and armed with a wealth of new material. And yet, and yet. It has been announced, with appropriate fanfare and surprise, that Abba are indeed coming back, with a new album, entitled Voyage — their first since 1981’s The Visitors — and a fiddly-sounding series of “virtual gigs”, that are going to combine holographic technology with a live band.
They chose to announce their return with a double-A side single, featuring the new songs “I Still Have Faith In You” (which had been announced in 2018) and “Don’t Shut Me Down”. Neither seriously challenges the supremacy of such pop classics as “Dancing Queen”, “Mamma Mia” or “Money, Money, Money”, but both are surprisingly accomplished, both musically and vocally. The former is a slow-burning epic with a suitably anthemic chorus that isn’t a million miles away from the likes of “The Name of the Game”, and the latter is a more obviously poppy offering that summons up the spirit of Abba’s disco heyday, but in a pleasant rather than derivative fashion. They are, of course, wildly out of kilter with contemporary musical tastes, but it doesn’t matter. Abba have returned. And more songs will follow in November, when the album is released.
In their heyday, it was a brave man or woman who would seek to extol their virtues over the likes of punk and rock
The turnaround in Abba’s reception over the past couple of decades is a fascinating thing. In their heyday, it was a brave man or woman who would seek to extol their virtues over the likes of punk and rock. At a time where bands like the Sex Pistols, Clash and Led Zeppelin were in the ascendant, there was something faintly bizarre about this smiling and wholesome bunch of Swedes, who parlayed their Eurovision victory with “Waterloo” in 1974 into a hugely successful but relatively short-lived pop career. By the end of 1982, they had ceased to record or perform. It did not help that the two central relationships within the band — between Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog — had both resulted in divorce, resulting in such magnificently bleak songs as “Lay All Your Love On Me”, and, of course, the mighty “The Winner Takes It All”, which might still be their greatest achievement.
Yet they never went away, and two things ensured their continued presence in public memory. The first was the best-of compilation Abba Gold, which came out in 1992 and has now sold over 5.5 million copies. It remains one of the best-selling albums ever released. And the second was the musical Mamma Mia, which premiered in 1999 and has continued to run in the West End, as well as in many other countries. In turn, it spawned two films, which had their own best-selling soundtracks, and have led to a suitably febrile and Abba-friendly atmosphere for the band to return after what must be the longest hiatus that any major act has ever left between albums.
There have, of course, been naysayers. It is hard for many to accept that an act as successful and commercially-minded as Abba has taken the effort to return for purely artistic reasons, and there have been murmurings that the new album will be little more than a cash-in souvenir for those aficionados who already own everything else that they have recorded. To which the only response, surely, is that there is no pressing financial need for any members of the band to have done anything, given the extraordinary success that they have continued to reap over the past decades. Instead, it seems that Voyage has been recorded and released not out of necessity, but because the band genuinely believes that it has something left to offer. Judging by the two songs that they have sent out into the world, this seems a perfectly fair summation.
Voyage has been recorded because the band genuinely believes that it has something left to offer
And their return will, of course, place attention on the — shall we say — complex group dynamics. Benny and Björn have long since had a place in international repute as a pair of loveably avuncular figures, cheerily appearing at any number of concerts and events in suitably twinkly fashion. Yet Agnetha and Anna-Frid have been considerably less clubbable figures. The former, in particular, famously took a 17-year hiatus from the music industry in which she essentially became a recluse, avoiding the hoo-ha around the Mamma Mia and Abba Gold releases entirely and spending her time practising yoga and riding horses around a small part of Sweden. Although she has returned to the spotlight for various one-off events over the past few years, and has gamely been photographed with her bandmates now and again, this is by far the highest profile endeavour that she has been involved in for decades.
For many reasons, the much-anticipated idea of Abba doing a full world tour seems deeply unlikely. Rumours have persisted that promoters have previously offered them a billion dollars to do so, and this has been turned down, so one can only imagine that a tax bill the size of a small country’s annual GDP would cause them to reconsider. While the “virtual concert” format will certainly satisfy diehard fans, there are many more who will be mildly disappointed at their inability to see the band themselves live. But, as Bette Davis says at the end of Now, Voyager, “Don’t let’s ask for the moon; we have the stars.”
So, dancing queens and Fernandos of the world, it is time, once again, to take a chance on Abba, and hope that this particular arrival leads to the name of the game being as good as new, rather than the angel-eyed ones meeting their Waterloo amidst public disillusion. Even as many of their fans have been waiting for this dream world, making it a very happy new year for them, others will suggest that these super troupers have simply given into the lure of “Gimme, gimme, gimme” and “money, money, money.” But, when all is said and done, we have to thank them for the music. This particular group of kings and queens have not lost their crowns; the reunion will hopefully go on and on and on, and we shall, once again, lay all our love on them.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe