The Swedish pop sensation, ABBA, has returned. Although I’m sure you are already well aware of their amazing musical contributions to society, such as Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia, and my personal favorite Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight), you may not have been aware of their triumphant homecoming.
Forty years after their split, ABBA has come back together to write, record and release 10 new songs on ‘Voyage.’ Through intergenerational appeal, synth, and trademark storytelling abilities, ABBA takes us on a ‘Voyage’ through all of life's pains, struggles, and triumphs.
What we all came for…
There’s a reason why ABBA’s top songs are the kind that can be danced to all night long— these are the most fun and energetic and what we all were hoping to get with ‘Voyage.’ Although most of the songs are more chill, there are a few that stood out to me as possible Dancing Queen contenders. Emphasis on possible.
Don’t Shut Me Down begins with the same feel as Chiquitita. Melodrama accompanying a somber story, flipped into a relatively quick paced dance beat which is very “two-steppable.” This is the ABBA that I’m familiar with; twinkling piano, a steady beat and just the right amount of synth. It ends unresolved which could feel very odd, but works as another storytelling quality that they can employ. Don’t Shut Me Down also includes the best line of the album, which is the perfect affirmation as we’re headed into 2022, “I'm fired up, I'm hot, don't shut me down.”
Immediately followed on the album is Just a Notion which is in the exact same wheelhouse as Waterloo. It feels appropriate to dub this song as the ‘happy’ pairing to Don’t Shut Me Down. The background vocals add a nuance that provides an even more joyful sound with a hint of rock and roll fit for a production of Grease.
The star of this album, however, is Keep an Eye on Dan. It starts in a very similar way to Mamma Mia as both songs make use of apprehensive chords in their intros, but because of its subject matter, Keep an Eye on Dan takes a bit longer to enter into the disco world. It's about a woman losing full-custody of her child, Dan, and while it might seem shameful to jam out to a song with such a depressing storyline, the catchiness of the piece is too freaking good. The pairing of traumatic lyrics with a bouncy beat is not lost on ABBA and I’m sure we all saw it coming back, but it somehow catches me by surprise every time. The song closes with the same chord progression that’s played in SOS, a song about a failing relationship, making their use of storytelling that much more smart and intentional.
Ode to Freedom closes out ‘Voyage’ perfectly, mirroring the first song, I Still Have Faith in You. These are genuine songs that question, and place faith in, humanity. Although Ode to Freedom may not be the disco dance song we’ve been craving since 1979, it still achieves a gorgeous closing to the album that gave me goose-bumps. The music itself was beautifully written by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and it feels like the album cover looks; cosmic.
What we all expected
This album is packed with ballads, powerful lyricism and that tangible sadness ABBA loves to play with. ‘Voyage’ starts off with I Still Have Faith in You, a beautiful piano ballad that sounds like a triumphant march which encourages the band to move forward with this album; “But I remind myself of who we are / How inconceivable it is to reach this far / Do I have it in me? / I believe it is in there / For I know I hear a bittersweet song / in the memories we share.” It’s a tender song and the vocals of 71-year-old Agnetha and 75-year-old Anni-Frid give it a sweet lullaby-like quality, like a couple of grandmothers serenading their grandchildren.
This same lullaby sound is continued with Little Things, a song in which a grandma sings about her favorite things during the Christmas season. A children’s choir sings the outro, bringing out the child-like quality of the song. The song itself isn’t very memorable and it’s a confusing piece to be included in the album as a whole. When you look at the ‘Voyage’ cover art, a piano ballad Christmas song isn’t the first, or even the last thing you'd expect to see on this album. Regardless, I’m hesitant to blame ABBA for the inclusion of Little Things; if they want their farewell album to include a Christmas song, then so be it.
There are times when ABBA nails the parallels of music production and storytelling, and sometimes they just seem to miss the mark. For example, there are two very Celtic sounding songs on this album: When You Danced With Me, a song about Kilkenny- a region in Ireland and the memories it holds, and Bumblebee which is just about a bee as far as I can tell. The first song's lyrics match perfectly within the vibe of the song. There’s intense imagery and a strong theme to the song, which permeates through all of its elements. And while Bumblebee still holds on to strong imagery, it seems to conflict with the sound of the song itself. When they successfully blend the elements, they create a song which can be placed into a musical’s storyline, as we’ve seen with the oddly specific Mamma Mia! songs. But when they sway from what they do best, they end up with something confusing and out of place.
To further that point, No Doubt About It initially sounds like a song that could be danceable or blasted in the car with the windows down, and then it awkwardly slows down into a power ballad. The weird tempo changes make the song difficult to find a specific mood, which results in a generally unenjoyable song. On the other hand, I Can Be That Woman is unenjoyable because it’s just so sad. The story follows a woman coming home (late at night? drunk?) and her husband is very upset with her. Her dog is very upset with her. This has been going on for far too long! There’s really no arc in this song, with no redemption for any of its characters.
In the end, the album feels like a mis-matching of songs that can sway your mood every few minutes. In today’s music world, the completeness of an album is just as important as every song in and of itself. ‘Voyage’ flounders in that sense. But, then again, it’s ABBA, 40-years-later, saying farewell with one last album. At some point, it’s permissible to do what you love just for the sake of loving it.
Featured Image: Genius