Everyone’s favorite Swedish band is back. Forty years after releasing their last album, the legendary group ABBA — named after Agnetha Fältskog, Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad — have reunited to produce their latest album “Voyage.”
Why now? Are any of the ABBA members in sudden need of more fame and fortune? Was their legacy in doubt? Were the endless royalties from their hit single “Dancing Queen” and their hit musical “Mamma Mia!” not enough?
On the contrary, “Voyage” was the result of Benny and Björn (the band’s songwriters) deciding to add a few more tracks to a virtual “ABBAtars” concert (yes, their genius apparently extends to puns as well as pop hooks) that they were planning in 2016. Agnetha and Anni-Frid agreed to record so long as they didn’t have to promote the album.
A Well-Timed Comeback
Thus, “Voyage” was made by already rich and famous musicians with no real need or desire to keep making music. It was simply a fun thing to do that people might like.
And this is perfectly fine. In terms of their melodies and hooks, ABBA’s discography stands right up there with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Michael Jackson. The band never had to go through any reinventions because their songs were so good.
There’s also something conducive to the timing of “Voyage’s” release this year. While it would come off as unusually retro and cheesy in the ’80s and ’90s, let alone the ‘00s and ‘10s, it somehow fits in today’s pop music landscape that runs the whole spectrum of musical genres and styles. With bands like Tennis, TOPS, and Weyes Blood lovingly conserving and refreshing many of ABBA’s motifs and hooks, ABBA itself can continue to do its thing without looking like a bunch of desperate boomers completely out of step with the times.
A Few Great Hits and Several Fine Ones
With this in mind, one can properly judge their newest album. And how is “Voyage”? It’s good, not great. It’s certainly not the same level as “Visitors,” “Super Trouper,” “The Album,” or “Arrival” (to be fair, most albums wouldn’t be, regardless of the band) but it matches the quality of their earlier albums, with a few amazing tracks, several decent tracks, and one cringingly bad track.
Among the best songs is the opening track, “I Still Have Faith in You,” which will likely elicit some strong feelings from fans, as it builds up from the lone voice of Anni-Frid and Benny’s piano to a triumphant chorus with Bjorn and Agnetha, all expressing a heartfelt exuberance in coming back together. (There’s not much point in quoting ABBA’s lyrics, which are almost always intended more to convey a general mood than say anything specific.)
Upon this strong foundation is the rest of the album built. The two other standout songs are “Don’t Shut Me Down” and “Keep an Eye On Dan.” Not only are these tracks catchy, but their complexity and production merit repeated listens.
Then there are the moderately good tracks (songs that you don’t skip, nor skip to) that fill out the rest of the album: “When You Danced With Me,” “Just a Notion,” “I Can Be That Woman,” “No Doubt About It,” “Bumblebee,” and “Ode to Freedom.” As it has in past albums, ABBA distinguishes itself with its range. The band is not confined to creating formulaic dance numbers or soulful ballads; they can do it all, and do it well.
Except for that saccharine lullaby that ABBA never fails to deliver at least once per album. In this case, that song is “Little Things,” a Christmas-themed ditty that even includes a children’s choir. Sure enough, this song has been released as a single for the Christmas season and will probably end up being played for years to come despite being the worst song of the whole album.
ABBA Had Nothing to Prove in ‘Voyage’
Despite being well into their 70s, Anni-Frid and Agnetha’s vocals hold up incredibly well — all apparently without the help of autotune and other electronic filters. In fact, their mature age has even helped to soften some of the excessive brightness that could be jarring in their earlier albums.
As for Benny and Bjorn, their songwriting and production also hold up, but not quite as well. One would hope to see them add at least a few innovations in their sounds or arrangements, but they are completely risk-averse. They have it in them to blow away the current acts, make the most of their maturity, and restore some integrity to current pop music just by modernizing a little bit. But, perhaps because of their advanced age, they instead stick with nostalgia and squander their last opportunity for relevance.
Then again, this was never the point because there was never anything to prove. And it would’ve been strange, if not grotesque, to see ABBA betray itself with a newer style or collaborate with some new pop star or rapper in the hopes of staying fresh. Rather, they decided to enjoy themselves and make some music for their fans.
“Voyage” could’ve been something more, but then again it could’ve been much worse. Overall, it’s good pop, a pleasant escape from the noise of everything else on the radio, and a nice reminder of ABBA’s special genius.