Album Review: ABBA – Voyage

[Capitol; 2021]

Two things in recent music memory have struck me as particularly implausible. The first, Kate Bush taking to the stage again for a live show, became a reality in 2014 to dramatically successful effect.

The second, and possibly even unlikelier of the two, is fresh in our consciousness: Scandinavian pop titans ABBA – who last released a studio album in November 1981 and last recorded together in 1982 – reconvening for a new studio LP of all-new material. Yes, ABBA – occupying a strange position of ubiquity despite no new material in four decades – have somewhat unbelievably added to their studio album discography that for so long stretched only from 1973-81.

Voyage is the result. A 37-minute orbit around some of the things that made ABBA so successful in the first place and so enduring in the years following their low-key exit from centre stage: songs packed with hooks upon hooks, lyrics that hone in on the tragic drama of adult foibles, precision production, and first-class vocals and harmonies. It is actually remarkable realising that these recordings come four decades after The Visitors, their last studio LP, such is their consistency with the rest of the ABBA catalogue.

“Do I have it in me?” sings Anni-Frid Lyngstad on album opener “I Still Have Faith in You”, one of the pair of songs debuted in September as the first tasters of Voyage; “I believe it is in there.” When this languorous elegant ballad blooms into a chorus of pure pop joy with drums, electric guitar, and classic ABBA harmonies, the answer is a resounding yes: “we do have it in us,” sing Frida and Agnetha Faltskog in multi-tracked harmony, “new spirit has arrived / the joy and the sorrow / we have a story / and it survived.” Forty years after The Visitors, all the emotion and meaning in such a lyric is not lost on the listener. Frida and Agnetha’s vocals are a little lower, a touch huskier, but still immediately recognisable.

Voyage veers between these big emotive ballads and fast-paced songs of adult drama and tense romantic affairs – the ABBA modus operandi, you may say. As such, it has most in common with the group’s final two records, 1980’s Super Trouper and 1981’s The Visitors, in style and sound – electronic flavours and synth flourishes meld effortlessly with acoustic instrumentation and, ultimately, it’s an album where you’re more likely to find a “One of Us” or “The Winner Takes It All” than you are a “Mamma Mia” or “Dancing Queen”.

That said, “When You Danced with Me” incorporates a Celtic feel and sounds like a Super Trouper album track like “The Piper” has had a bit of a dalliance with “Dum Dum Diddle” from 1976’s Arrival. It has a traditional Celtic party-cum-Europop feel and a classic ABBA melody that marches up and down the scale. With its bright chords and delicious harmonies, it sounds, more than some of the other songs, like a lost ABBA classic.

Your mileage may vary on a song like “When You Danced with Me” but it definitely will on one like “Little Things” – is it a toe-curling schmaltz-fest about Yuletide gratitude or a touching paean to familial love and the passing of time? Only you can decide. The melody is beamed straight from an intimate musical theatre scene, hardly surprising of ABBA’s peerless tunesmiths Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. There are festive glockenspiels and recorders and the melody does take a lovely turn when the children’s choir and music box make an appearance. For me, the choir is more touching than on the twee schlager of “I Have a Dream”, but a lyric like “oh what joy Santa brings, thanks old friend for packing Christmas stockings full of nice little things” may make you reach for the sick bucket.

The disco stomper “Don’t Shut Me Down” gets us back on track, with Agnetha taking centre stage for the first time. It starts with a dramatic, spare arrangement before a “Dancing Queen” piano fill takes us into early 80s disco territory. The chorus is classic ABBA but Andersson’s production is strangely squashed and flat, and could do with a bit more of a propulsive, live feel to really bolster the vitality of the lyric (“I’m fired up / I’m hot / don’t shut me down”). Somewhat improbably given today’s chart landscape, “Don’t Shut Me Down” – another song that could easily have fit onto Super Trouper – became ABBA’s first UK Top 10 since “One of Us” in 1981 earlier this autumn. The lyric once again feels doubly meaningful, as Agnetha sings, “I’m not the one you knew / I’m now and then combined” – which could be the tagline for the entire premise of Voyage, an album that finds this septuagenarian quartet making music that somehow feels both of their time but also of ABBA’s original time.

“Just a Notion” follows, a song recorded in 1978 and first heard in part on 1994’s box set Thank You for the Music. It has a 60s Spector-meets-70s glam vibe that has little in common with what became Voulez-Vous, ABBA’s quintessential disco album, but instead has more in keeping with the vibe of 1975’s ABBA, which still bore some of the hallmarks of ABBA’s early glam influence. It is a bit of an anomaly here, not least because the original 1978 vocals are kept and supplemented with additional instrumentation from 2021. There is a bounciness that is a little at odds with the rest of the material, but who can bet against an injection of pure simplistic joy?

The second side of the vinyl – look out for the cute way in which Side A and Side B are delineated – opens with “I Can Be That Woman”, another strong Agnetha vehicle. It’s a beautiful and emotional piano ballad that wouldn’t be out of place as one of the more emotive songs on The Visitors a la “Slipping Through My Fingers”. Even realising from the lyric that the ‘other woman’ is a dog can’t dampen the listener’s spirits.

“Keep an Eye on Dan”, meanwhile, is bizarre and brilliant – it melds the icy synths and minor key misery of The Visitors with the fiery, lascivious disco of Voulez-Vous, and with a Super Trouper-style divorce narrative thrown in for good measure that ABBA do so well. It’s quality ABBA, with various hooks, unexpected melodic turns, and rhythmic shifts. Look out too for the piano reference to “S.O.S.”. Some of Voyage is wonderfully self-referential in this way – listen out too for the flutes at the start of the sweet ballad “Bumblebee” that recall “Fernando”.

The album takes a left-turn with the fast-paced and electro-inflected “No Doubt About It”, a catchy stomper that sounds like one of The Visitors album tracks has morphed with “Hole In Your Soul” (from 1977’s The Album). And just as soon as it began, the album glides away with the stately elegance of “Ode to Freedom”, a beautiful closer featuring a hymnal vocal arrangement and the accompaniment of the Stockholm Concert Orchestra. It ends the album in a similar fashion to Super Trouper and The Visitors – understated gems like “The Way Old Friends Do” and “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room”, songs of grace and mature beauty. It’s a fitting end to this unexpected voyage.

Voyage really does sound like an ABBA album that could have been made in the early 1980s; it is as if the book was closed in 1982 and has been finally reopened, a little dusty but picking up exactly where it left off, remarkably unimpeded by the intervening years. Agnetha and Frida’s vocals remain strong and stirring and Frida’s voice, in particular, carries the record with elegance and strength. Benny’s production work at times does a disservice to the material but, for the most part, Voyage is a welcome addition to the ABBA canon. “This isn’t where it ends…” goes one of the hooks on “No Doubt About It”. This remains to be seen but, if this is where it ends for ABBA, it’s been a voyage worth taking.