Tight harmonies. Theatrical storytelling. A strong musical quartet. These come to mind at the very mention of ABBA, a Swedish band that dominated the charts in the 70s and the 80s with infectious disco-pop hits like “Dancing Queen”, “Mamma Mia” and “Super Trouper”. Now, in a shinier, more expansive musical playing field, ABBA aims to win and take it all one more time with Voyage.
From Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ masterful melodic arrangements and studio production to Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad’s timeless and iconic lead vocals, ABBA steamrolled through the music scene with unapologetically cheesy dance tracks and, by the end of their career as a group, darker, more dramatic, and deeply personal ballads, ultimately becoming the blueprint of pop songwriting and production excellence.
A return to the main stage might be a bad idea for a band that so many love for the nostalgia–all forty years of it–but ABBA’s Voyage is a perfect blend of 80s callbacks and new walls of sound built upon the legacy they have. The end result: the new golden standard of reunion albums.
“I Still Have Faith In You”, the album’s opening track, is a piano ballad whose melodies may very well have been the love child of Voulez-Vous’ “If It Wasn’t For The Nights” and “Chiquitita”; its basic, stripped-down verses trick you into letting your guard down while it slowly builds up into the chorus, roaring loudly with Anni-Frid singing triumphantly, “We have a story//And it survived//…We’re in this together//Passion and courage is everything.” It does its one job perfectly: letting its listeners know that the album is going to be campy, and that they’re going to enjoy every second of it.
The Irish folk-inspired “When You Danced With Me” and Christmas song “Little Things” continue with the trend of displaying Andersson and Ulvaeus’ hearty lyrics and tight melodies. Granted, the latter sees the quartet giving in to the temptation of possibly becoming Christmas season staples with its lyrics (“Children bursting with giggles and screams//Oh, what joy Santa brings//Thanks, old friend, for packing//Christmas stockings full of little nice things”), whereas it’s clearer with “When You Danced With Me” that the group has no intention of phoning it in even now. Backed by jovial instrumentals, Fältskog and Lyngstad sing about being left by their lover in rural Kilkenny, and then seeing them back again after many years. “You’re only here now to see the village fair//You’re just here for the music, that’s all//Or could it be you missed the good old times when you danced with me?”
It’s this simple yet thought-provoking dichotomy of heavy themes and poppy sounds that make ABBA so timeless; everyone agrees that “Dancing Queen” is a perfect pop anthem that people play to dance along with, but it brings with its lyrics the reminder that youth is fleeting and “having the time of your life” could mean more than just hanging out with your friends and getting lost in the music in some lively club. “The Winner Takes It All” is built like a stadium anthem, but it talks about defeated love and the painful process of picking yourself up after losing someone dear.
Bittersweetness is where ABBA shines, and it’s still on full display in Voyage. The one-two-three narrative punch that the tracks “Just A Notion”, “I Can Be That Woman”, and “Keep An Eye On Dan” deliver is backed by loud synths and a bellowing full band (with an earnest piano-heavy intro for the middle track), but the narrative tells the story of a young couple’s early years full of love and yearning evolving into an abusive marriage that fizzles out into divorce and a shared custody of their child. “I Can Be That Woman”’s heart-wrenching lyrics (“…you curse and kick a chair//And the dog, bless her heart, licks my fingers//But she jerks every time you swear//I feel sick and my hands are shaking//This is how all our fights have begun//…You’re not the man you should have been”) will stay with you even as you’re trying your best to bop your head to the infectious beat of the next track.
Before Voyage came, most newer fans were introduced to ABBA through ABBA Gold, a greatest hits album that is not only considered the crème de la crème of ABBA’s career, but also of greatest hits albums in general. With that benchmark in mind, Voyage has four songs that should undoubtedly be part of future reissues of Gold, songs that bring the group’s assets front and center and does so so perfectly that they sound like classics both from the past and for the future: the aforementioned tracks “When You Danced With Me” and “Keep An Eye On Dan”, and lead single side-b “Don’t Shut Me Down” and “No Doubt About It”.
Where “Don’t Shut Me Down” carefully blends 80s and modern 20s disco (think Kylie Minogue’s Disco and Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?) to create a bombastic mid-tempo hit, “No Doubt About It” fully embraces the band’s rock tendencies prominent in Arrival favorite “Tiger”. Andersson and Ulvaeus shine the brightest in these tracks, unabashedly displaying their production chops and proving that their songwriting is among history’s greatest.
Despite coming off as an album that gleams only in its loudest moments, Voyage also manages to make its quieter points stand out with the help of Fältskog and Lyngstad’s air-tight, emotive harmonies.
On “Bumblebee”, Anni-Frid both enjoys the moment and stresses on the idea that change could bring an end to her garden friend’s beauty (He’s just a tiny, fuzzy ball//And I wonder how he can fly at all//A world without him//I dread to think what that would be//And I imagine my distress//It would be a new kind of loneliness).
“Ode to Freedom”, the album’s closing track, is a grand, orchestral waltz that sings of freedom as “more than just a word” and how it is both “elusive” and “hard to hold”, therefore making the intentions of most songs addressing it questionable. Collectively, through Fältskog and Lyngstad’s voices, and Andersson and Ulvaeus’ lyrics, the band hopes that they could write their own that is dignified and simple, and that everyone in the future can sing along to one that rings true to them. It is a graceful, tear-jerking love letter to their fans, and a moment of sublime finality for both the album and ABBA as a band.
So much more can be said about how intricate and gorgeous Voyage is. Little things like how the “SOS” motif by the end of “Keep An Eye On Dan” ties the narrative to their older works, or how its own is curated so carefully (the children’s choir at the end of “Little Things” and the line acknowledging their laughter at the beginning of “Don’t Shut Me Down” come to mind), or how it tactfully pays respect to their past by reintroducing sounds from their younger years (the “Fernando” flute in “Bumblebee” and Benny’s “Red Christmas” reworked as a choir piece for “Little Things”), but at the end of the day, what matters most is that Voyage works because it is ABBA: gleeful, somber, silly, serious ABBA. It’s ABBA as you’ve heard them before, and it’s ABBA in the 2020s. It’s a celebration of all the years that have gone by and a cheers for all the music, and it’s a testament to just how heartwarming campy pop music can be when made with passion, care, and friends. 4.7/5