entertainment

ABBA Voyage review: 'A glorious climax to the soundtrack of our lives'

The pop supergroup delivers poignant pop par excellence on their first album for 40 years, writes Darren Styles.

2021-11-05

Words: Darren Styles; Image: Baillie Walsh

They say never go back. But what if you never actually left? Well, not officially. Even though ABBA’s last studio album was 1981’s The Visitors, at no point in the intervening 40 years did the one of the biggest pop bands of all time (400 million album sales and counting) say they were done. Seems we assumed what even they never knew.

And so here we are, face to face with the biggest comeback since Jesus of Nazareth. On the cusp of the 50th anniversary of the group’s coming together in 1972, and four decades since their last new music, here lands ABBA’s ninth and (they now say) final album: Voyage.

Up front, let me tell you what it isn’t: It’s not forward-focused, trend-driven or revelatory. Other than by its very existence, it’s not altogether surprising. It looks like ABBA, walks like ABBA, talks like ABBA.

But that’s because it absolutely is ABBA, in every golden respect: period in sound, often poignant in execution and a high-sugar diet of pop par excellence. And for those who lived through Brighton’s Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, ‘Waterloo’ victory and all, and then right through 17 Number Ones and the period whereby a Swedish supergroup were as big as The Beatles had been before them, this is the ached-for encore we thought would never come.

Voyage aligns, as many will already have heard, with a series of ABBA avatar (for which read ABBAtars, naturally) concerts of the same name, opening in London next spring, where a virtual Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad will take to the stage more frequently than they ever did in reality. Among 24 ‘live’ songs, some of the new material will feature alongside the all-time greats, and the good news is that it stands measure.

ABBA (Image: Baillie Walsh)

Voyage features ten tracks, three of which have been pre-released: two at launch to great acclaim at the end of August (‘I Still Have Faith In You’ and ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’) and a third more recently, ‘Just A Notion’.

‘I Still Have Faith in You’ opens the album and it reassures and celebrates, in equal measure, that the wholesome foursome is intact, in touch and maintains belief on the back of memories they’ve shared. Though Ulvaeus recalls that it wasn’t until 15 minutes before the band were finally due to reassemble in the studio that he realised he’d not actually asked the girls if their singing voices had held up in their autumn years. So maybe there’s some relief among the soaring chorus and exuberant, immaculate choral climax too.

And so the stage is set for what, it transpires, is a typical mix of the atypical that every ABBA album has delivered. Harking to the love of folk music that first drew the band together in 1972, ‘When You Danced With Me’ is a glorious Irish ceilidh of the kind that sent Kate Winslet to tabletops in Titanic third class, ‘Little Things’ a Christmas song that drips with music box simplicity and tugs the heart strings as might a fairy tale read aloud. Listen out for the children’s choir ripped clean from the ‘I Have A Dream’ playbook.

‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ is a lyrically-clever nod to the coming ABBAtars, but moreover a gold-plated highlight that speaks to the mini-musical sound that closed out ‘Abba, the Album’ when Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee was silver rather than incoming platinum. “And now you see another me, I’ve been reloaded” – what our own 95 year-old Dancing Queen wouldn’t give for some of that.

Similarly period is ‘Just A Notion’, apparently recorded for 1979’s ‘Voulez-Vous’ but narrowly excluded, so polished anew and included here to deliver an ‘SOS’-style intro with ranging piano and hooks aplenty up the line. This is the big singalong number you’ll be humming for days (want to or not) and, should it come to pass, you’ll see Meryl Streep dancing down the quayside to in Mamma Mia 3.

From there we move to the autobiographical phase: ‘I Can Be That Woman’ is a slow and painful break-up song awash with melancholy and self-blame: the languid delivery of “You’re not the man you should have been, I let you down somehow, I’m not the woman I could have been, but I can be that woman now” hangs with the lingering hope and regret of every failing relationship.

Björn Ulvaeus (left) and Benny Andersson (Image: Ludvig Andersson)

And none more so than when there are kids involved – ‘Keep An Eye on Dan’ has a musical urgency and lyrical fear for the well-being of a shared son, swapped on Sundays between separated parents. The angst and heartache is palpable, the mirror held to ABBA’s own lived reality tangible. And if you doubt the cry for help, the track ends with last bars of ‘SOS’. If you know, you know.

The three tracks that close Voyage are as idiosyncratic as to be bang on brand. ‘Bumblebee’ is a twee rumination on the well-being of a species threatened that sparks a lament as the now-retired ABBA sit among the flowers of their metaphorical garden. It’s sweet, but unremarkable.

‘No Doubt About It’ is steps closer to greatness – a crashing, uptempo number in the vein of ‘Does Your Mother Know’ of old, in this case centred around an apology for a tendency to fight. It’s the sleeper hit on the album, no doubt about it, and as the penultimate track finishes at a dead stop with the line “this isn’t where it ends.” And yet it almost is.

We leave ABBA, for the last time, amidst the Stockholm Concert Orchestra and a sea of strings – multiple violins, violas and cellos – with the haunting and wistful ‘Ode to Freedom’. Theirs, newly found with the last chapter banked? Ours, at the end of a box set all but 50 years in length? Maybe both.

But here’s what matters. I’m old enough to have been a fan from the start, and Voyage delights me, even if – as surely as triggered by the scent or sight of a long-lost love – the sounds herein occasionally tear the heart from my chest and use it as a football. It echoes of yesteryear, and some of that hurts.

Anni-Frid Lyngstad (left) and Agnetha Fältskog (Image: Ludvig Andersson)

Just as importantly, if you arrived to ABBA as recently as Mamma Mia on stage or screen, or via the Gold compilation released as late as 1992 that became ABBA’s best-selling album (30 million worldwide and counting, 5.5 million in the UK and still in the charts more than 1,000 weeks later), you’ll love this final chapter, too. It’s a little bit more of everything when you thought the table had been cleared.

Had I the chance I’d thank them – for the memories, for one last opportunity to go round again and, of course, for the music. Voyage marks the end of a journey, but it’s been the ride and the soundtrack of a lifetime.

Rating: 5/5

ABBA Voyage is out now.