As you get older you tend to create a strange relationship with your own adolescence. What might feel like a distant chapter you don’t want to revisit at all it can also result in a certain romanticization from time to time. When you’re young you think that both time and life’s possibilities are endless, at least that’s what I remember about my youth. I obviously can’t speak for today’s teenagers who grow up in a late capitalist nightmare somewhere between pandemic outbreaks and climate collapse. Gosh, weren’t times just simpler when you were younger? Not loaded with responsibilities and harsh truths that break your once so optimistic spirit from time to time? Well, that’s a rhetorical question … which leads us directly to the pop musical elephant in the room: Did it need an ABBA reunion four decades after their initial split? Needless to say that question might just be as rhetorical as the previous one, even for some die hard fans. Nobody asked for that, at least not anymore (but lots of people did in the past forty years, that much is for sure) but here we are: Voyage, the group’s new album is set to arrive on Friday, November the 5th.
Who would have thought the day would ever come? In the past decades since the Swedes broke up there have been multiple rumours, countless offers (I think they once were offered 1 billion dollars for a reunion tour) and constant denial to give in to the comeback. And the longer it lasted the more you actually didn’t want to see it happen. And while they won’t be doing a real live tour (thus sparing us from an ‘old folks incarnation’ of the band) they will return to the stage via a groundbreaking hologram show that will be running in a specific venue in London that was only built for that purpose. It’s virtual avatars with a real band and say what you want but that’s quite an impressive way to keep their legacy alive once they are dead (I mean, three of them are crossing the 80 mark in the next five years). By creating these “ABBAtars” (didn’t invent the pun but respect to those who did) the pop titans are one step closer in making the promise of eternal youth real to some degree. Because that’s what the sound of ABBA has always been about: the promise of timelessness and eternal beauty, freed from the outside world and the harsh reality of growing old.
ABBA have always been good in taking care of their pop-cultural legacy and imagery, especially musical masterminds Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. While their former partners Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad took a step back from the ABBA duties over the past decades (while obviously not minding all the royalties they get from the band), Benny and Björn formed quite a business empire out of it. Of course, there’s the infamous Mamma Mia musical and the similar annoying movies that came with it, there’s a museum in Stockholm, countless cover bands (remember the A*Teens, anybody?) and quite possibly their own karaoke video game somewhere. One thing is for sure: Money isn’t the driving force behind that comeback, they must have made enough of it. Personally, I think it’s all about keeping the machinery alive and also about organizing the future of your own legacy. I mean at a certain age you have to take care of these things … even as a private person. I should think about pension funds way more than I actually do right now. Of course, those brutal things aren’t part of the dream-like ABBA pop cosmos.
By setting up a new stage show that could literally run until the end of time (while getting technically improved over the next decades) Björn and Benny just took the next logical step in preserving “the ABBA look and feel” for future generations. As the technology improves that show will come to more cities than only London and will also work as a technological blueprint for any future virtual tours. Because – let’s face it: those things will become a more common option in the next decades. Artists won’t be able to fly around anymore in the same way they did before the pandemic and impending climate collapse. The question only remains how you’re actually able to afford that as a band if you’re not a million dollar pop star.
By conserving the imagery and the sound, ABBA just took the notion of their museum and the musical to the next digital level and merge it into an audiovisual event.
I’m pretty sure, Ralf Hütter is already working on a way to set this up for Kraftwerk, right? While it won’t work for every band (you can’t see The Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen doing this), it’s definitely an option for certain artists who are still alive and are actually capable of setting the rules here. Something the Whitney Houston hologram tour couldn’t do, I guess.
Wrestling with nostalgia is always a fight with emotions and memories and for a band like ABBA it’s crucial to make it look and feel as if time never passed since they split up back in 1981. Funnily, the whole comeback album feels just like a little side-project of this ambitious idea, one that happened by accident and out of fun, I guess. First the group only planned two new tracks (which they actually announced back in 2018), then more and more songs happened (partly using demos from back in the days they never finished) and the longer ABBA didn’t actually release these songs, the clearer it became that this going to be more than just a little fan gift. I mean, they even recorded a Christmas single, I heard.
Instant nostalgia in times of uncertainty
And once again – of course, the world doesn’t need a new ABBA record in 2021. It’s almost cynical to release one but luckily the sound appears to be doing the only logical thing: Avoiding the existence of the past 40 years of musical evolution. No electronic dance beats, no auto-tune, no hip hop detour – just music that sounds exactly like it could have been recorded in 1979. The voices of Anni-Frid and Agnetha are still on point. Sure, they partly lost their youthful approach but hat special feeling is still there. That’s why songs like Just A Notion or the cheesy comeback ballad I Still Have Faith In You already feel like you’ve known them all your life. They were written and produced to make you think that. I don’t know if ABBA have ever been about progress when it comes to music. 1981’s (former) final album This Visitors already felt slightly outdated upon its arrival with the simultaneous rise of new romantica and synth pop. We will never find out what path they would have followed if they decided to stick around. For their legacy the split was the best possible thing to happen.
They might be armed with new technology but still, in 2021 ABBA are all about preservation and the four Swedes did a solid job in doing exactly that on Voyage. It’s music meant to make you feel nostalgic besides being actually brand new.
I’ve never been a massive ABBA fan but I grew up in a household where they were playing on a regular basis so it was impossible to avoid them. And subtly that might have shaped my pop sensibility to a certain degrees. Of course, they wrote quite cheesy tracks but they are brilliant pop songs in terms of harmonies, songwriting and musicality. Dancing Queen is one of the best pieces of music every written and I’ll never not dance in a euphoric yet slightly melancholic way once a DJ decides to give it a go. This one never fails to make me tear up. And there are countless other hits that will shake up every good party – Gimme! Gimme Gimme!, Super Trouper, Lay All Your Love On Me, Knowing Me Knowing You – you name them. After an overall saturation with the group following their imperial phase in the 1970s younger generations eventually discovered the greatness of their music again. Well, and sooner or later even somebody like Noel Gallagher had to confess their brilliancy.
ABBA is the promise of eternal youth, beauty and carelessness. I mean, gosh, were these four good looking in their prime! Seeing them in their CGI-green-screen-suits in their 70s is definitely the opposite of that but I’m respecting them for showing that side as well. It shows a lot of awareness and irony; something that might help you to deal with the aging process. As you start to look back it does indeed become a blurry mixture of romanticization, shame and also melancholic longing. So, maybe that’s why this comeback might was always meant to leave a bittersweet aftertaste for us all.
These days, the discovery of the countless hits of ABBA is just one click away; probably every day there’s a new young fan discovering that sound for the first time and falling in love with the vibe. That’s the true brilliancy here. So, while I still question the initial necessity of the whole comeback story here I totally get it as well. There isn’t even a point in criticizing the whole campaign without getting emotional or take things as a personal result, just because it triggers so many aspects of your own life. ABBA aren’t ageless, none of us is. But by throwing themselves out there in the world, accepting the back clash and all the things that might come with it they also show a lot of bravery and I have a bit respect for that. Even as you get older you are allowed to dance, to jive and to have the time of your life. And no, that project won’t harm their legacy. The music will remain. Thank you for it. Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty … what would life be? Without a song or a dance what are we?
Voyage by ABBA is out now via Universal.
This is an extended feature based on a text originally published in Norman’s weekly mailout. Like what you read? Then don’t forget to sign up for ‘This Mess Called Music’ right here.