ABBA’s first album in 40 years, ‘Voyage,’ follows melodic formula

November 5, 2021
ABBA at work in the studio in Sweden.
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They’ve been gone for 40 years, but…not really.

ABBA hasn’t been absent from anyone’s lives given the ubiquity of worldwide touring musical phenomenon “Mamma Mia!,” two movies (“Mamma Mia!” and “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”) and songs such as “Dancing Queen” (their only U.S. No. 1, which is simply criminal) and “Waterloo” popping up at many a celebratory event.

Those outliers with no appetite for the Swedish quartet’s slick disco-pop can’t deny the songcraft of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the wizards behind the ABBA sound. These guys know their way around a melody and deserve respect even from those too hip to cop to appreciating ABBA.

The other half of the group, singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, is a special pairing, still never to be duplicated.

ABBA sighting: Group makes rare appearance in Stockholm

So here we are with ABBA’s ninth and final album, “Voyage,” four decades to the month since the release of “The Visitors.” That album bore the hit, “One of Us,” a wrenching ballad about a relationship in shambles, and it reflected on the group as well. Recall that, in a Fleetwood Mac-esque twist, Ulvaeus and Fältskog were married (they divorced in 1979, during “The Winner Takes it All” period), while also-married couple Andersson and Lyngstad split in 1981.

But reunions are a lucrative business, and even though ABBA, whose members are in their early-to-mid-70s, won’t attempt a farewell tour, the quartet is holding a “hologram show” in London in May with plans for a virtual tour.

Appetite for the group is still insatiable – they’ve sold nearly 400 million albums worldwide and their songs stream at a rate of 16 million per week – so why not give the people what they want?

At least some of the 10 tracks on “Voyage” – all written by Ulvaeus and Andersson – will quench that desire.

The vocals of Fältskog and Lyngstad still shimmer as if it’s 1976 and The Stockholm Concert Orchestra is prominent on most songs, which means much swooping and plushness.

Here’s a look at this “Voyage”:

“I Still Have Faith in You”: An instant return to the formula of a rich vocal building into a bustling chorus. Cymbals crash, snare drums roll, lyrics are delivered dramatically. It’s a collision of instrumentation in all of its ABBA grandness.

“When You Danced With Me”: A sweetly nostalgic lyric paired with a chugging backbeat, the song is also awash in Celtic overtones.

“Little Things”: The angelic twin vocals of Fältskog and Lyngstad paired with a lilting flute conjures the image of an innocent Disney creature frolicking in the woods. The lyrics lean toward holiday cheer, so there’s a reason for this sap. But the children’s choir that arrives at the song’s end is a bit cloying even for the most forgiving fan.

“Don’t Shut Me Down”: A worthy throwback to what people love most about ABBA: silky grooves and melodies in overdrive that sound like ELO mated with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The song begins with a cinematic sweep from the orchestra before bursting into ’70s-flavored disco. A chef’s kiss to this one.

“Just a Notion”: A hint of ’50s-styled doo-wop, boogie-woogie piano and a creeping bass line. Call it ABBA goes to the sock hop.

“I Can Be That Woman”: It takes a few lines to realize that, despite the title, the lyrics actually refer to a dog that has sniffed out the fact that a relationship has soured. Well, that’s a new approach. But at least we get this clarification: “You’re not the man you should’ve been/I let you down somehow/I’m not the woman I could’ve been/But I can be that woman now.”

“Keep An Eye on Dan”: It’s one of those ABBA songs that fools you with its mirror ball synths, a classic disco rhythm on the high hat and lush harmonizing. But no, this is not “Dancing Queen” redux. It’s about a child of divorce being dropped off at his dad’s for the weekend. The best part is the final notes, a seeming nod to ABBA’s classic “S.O.S.”

“Bumblebee”: A paean to climate change cloaked in synthesizers and flute to tell the tale of well, yes, a bumblebee. To wit: “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/From thyme to bluebell/From hyacinth to lily rose/Oh, how I do adore the sight/Of his rather clumsy, erratic flight.”

“No Doubt About It”: Electric guitar and spunky percussion propel the song, a carefree romp with one glorious chorus.

“Ode to Freedom”: A dozen violins soar and the cinematic veneer is undeniable. But despite its uplift in sound, the message is a bit more dour with its imploring lyrics: “It’s elusive and it’s hard to hold/ It’s a fleeting thing/That’s why there is no ode to freedom truly worth remembering.”

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