ABBA need no introduction. If I have to explain to you why the arrival of their new album Voyage is so historical, then you probably don’t care much for music. I framed it this way to my children: the last time ABBA had a new album, it was released the day after my fourth birthday. Not only was the ABBA reunion something that many of us were convinced would never happen, but the gap between the last album and this one — 39 years — is an eternity in the world of pop music. Not even Beatles and Who fans had to wait that long for the Anthology series and Endless Wire.
The wait, compounded by unreal expectations, will skew everyone’s impressions of Voyage — at least at first. “And I’m asking you to keep an open mind,” Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad sing in unison on the single “Don’t Shut Me Down”. “I’m not the same this time around / I’m fired up, don’t shut me down.” In other words, they’re asking you to take (another) chance on them. “I Still Have Faith in You”, the other single released ahead of Voyage’s arrival, could be interpreted as Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus trying to reassure themselves that this reunion was a good idea. The rhetorical “Do I have it in me?” is a more common refrain here than the title itself. That sets Fältskog and Lyngstad up to rejoice that “We do have it in us / New spirit has arrived / The joy and the sorrow / We have a story / And it survived.”
You may be thinking, “ABBA’s lyrical confidence is all well and good, but what about the music?” It’s a fair question, and the answer depends on what you want after a 39-year silence. Do you want ABBA to have evolved during their time off, the way Portishead did between their second and third albums? Or do you want ABBA to pick up where they left off? For Voyage, the group is, for better or worse, opting for the second option. There may not be a direct hit here like “Dancing Queen”, but you will find echoes of “Chiquitita” and “Waterloo” here and there, ringing out like they were products of the late 1970s/early 1980s Swedish pop scene.
That’s not to say that Voyage is a complete rehash. The aforementioned single, “I Still Have Faith in You”, is a power ballad with a modern touch thanks to a big drum sound and a blindingly optimistic chorus. The keyboard sounds of “Keep an Eye on Dan”, were probably considered cutting edge when Depeche Mode’s fame reached its zenith, but their incorporation into the ABBA sound is reassuring nonetheless. This bitter tale of split child custody is just one example of ABBA’s willingness to address the elephant in the room: their divorces and disbandment.
“I Can Be That Woman” had to have hit close to home for someone, capturing a vulnerable moment in a strained relationship. It’s one of Voyage’s most tender moments, and it’s almost unfortunate that such a lovely cadence would grace clunky lyrics like “You say you’ve had it / And you say ‘screw you’ / I say ‘I love you’ / And I know it’s true.” Countering all that tension is “Little Things”, a happy ode to marital and domestic bliss as a couple’s children wake up on Christmas morning: “As a brand new day is dawning / It’s a lovely Christmas morning / And why don’t we stay in bed for a while.”
If this all sounds a little too reflective, you don’t need to worry. ABBA still know how to have fun. “When You Danced With Me” bounces on what could best be described as a Celtic riff, painting a picture of two old acquaintances reuniting at a village fair: “You’re just here for the music, that’s all, or could it be / You miss the good old times when you danced with me.” Voyage’s third single, “Just a Notion”, is a holdover from a 1978 demo the band abandoned, and one can argue that this 2021 version is an improvement in the vocal department. With a rollicking piano rolling along and simple lyrics like “Just a notion, that’s all / Just a feeling that you’re watching me,” demonstrate that ABBA know when to be fun and frivolous.
True to the spirit of the 21st century, ABBA are addressing climate change head-on with “Bumblebee”. It’s a heartfelt piece of pastoral folk that clashes with the warning that “It’s quite absurd this summer morning / To think we could be trapped / Inside a world where all is changing / Too fast for bumblebees to adapt.” Closing song “Ode to Freedom” is too vague to be considered political. The understated sweeping strings underscore the song’s abstraction: “If I ever write my / Ode to freedom / It will be in prose that chimes with me / It will be a simple / Ode to freedom / Not pretentious, but with dignity.”
“Ode to Freedom” sends Voyage out not with a bang but with a sigh of relief that ABBA have pulled off a very good reunion album despite the odds and expectations. The bar remains where they left it nearly 40 years ago and they have thrived within their own limits. Voyage might not surpass ABBA’s timeless collection of gold hits, but it’s certainly better than the disappointment people will purport it to be.`