ABBA, Voyage review: A smorgasbord of schmaltz and stompers

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ABBA-tar: digital versions of the most famous Swedes in music will see the band’s younger selves appear in a London concert next May  (ABBA)
ABBA-tar: digital versions of the most famous Swedes in music will see the band’s younger selves appear in a London concert next May (ABBA)

“Love between a man and woman is war,” said Sweden’s most famous playwright, August Strindberg. It was a philosophy that the country’s most famous pop stars took on board. From their 1974 breakthrough “Waterloo” (“I was defeated, you won the war”) to their final single, 1982’s “Under Attack”, ABBA sang of love as conflict. The easy-cheese of those catchy, interlocking melodies and those sparkly synths were disco-camo for the quartet who brought the world Strindberg in sequins. “All I do is eat and sleep and sing/ Wishing every show was the last show…” they lamented beneath the lights.

This “Winner Takes it All” philosophy also made the reunion of the two divorced couples feel impossible. They had more “Money, Money, Money” than they could ever spend, so the only motivation could have been passion. Even 40 years after their last recording, Voyage comes charged with all the tension and relief of a hard-won truce.

The two teaser tracks released in September – power ballad “I Still Have Faith in You” and euphoric stomper “Don’t Shut Me Down” – have lyrics that carry the crackle of peace talks. You can hear songwriters Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson are “fired up” and pleading for one last chance to strut their studio stuff. “I’m asking you to have an open mind and I won’t be the same.” But famously publicity-shy singers Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad prevaricate: “Do I have it in me?” At different tempos, both tracks come to the (now obvious) conclusion that there’s still “a bittersweet song” – or 10 – to be wrung “from the memories we share”.

Fans who’ve heard those songs will know that ABBA haven’t tried to update the gloriously gaudy vintage tinsel of their Eighties office party sound. Ulvaeus and Andersson have always been canny businessmen and they know their appeal has never been about being “on trend”. From the outset it was their gung-ho uncoolness that struck a chord in everybody’s inner outsider. That’s why their songs soundtracked films that celebrated defiance of the social mainstream, such as Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

As composers of musical theatre, Ulvaeus and Andersson know how to craft a narrative arc. So Voyage begins with the questioning “I Still Have Faith in You”, before skidding onto the dance floor with the faux-Celtic swirl of “When You Danced With Me”. Opening with the line “I remember when you left Kilkenny…” and decked out with pipes and drums, this is a track that ought to make Ed Sheeran’s “Galway Girl” sound authentic. The haters will snort into their Guinness. But the walloping warmth of its theme-bar heart will have fans dancing on the tables. The women’s voices are loaded with bonhomie, as they flirt with the reasons for their reunion: “You’re just here for the music, that’s all/ Or could it be that you missed the good old times when you danced with me?”

Next up is the promised Christmas song, “Little Things”. A twinkling music box melody, frosted with flutes and topped with a children’s choir, it’s the pretty, soft-focus tale of a couple lying in bed listening to children playing with their new toys. Then comes the jolly – if less memorable – old-school, pub-singalong “Just a Notion”, on which you can picture Andersson’s pint shaking as he hammers out glam-chords on the old Joanna and rosy-cheeked grandmothers sway along with their port and lemons. There are some cheeky “Ah-has”, as nods back to “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.

Things take a darker turn with the next two tracks about marital discontent, which both sound like they’ve been lifted from musicals. “I Can Be That Woman” is a lushly countrified tearjerker in which a couple’s drunken arguments traumatises their poor dog. “You say you’ve had it, and you say ‘screw you’… I’m aware of how far I’ve sunk”. The women’s voices crack with anger, irritation, regret and yearning. Resistance is useless. Backed by anxious strings and twitchy, tock-tock synth pulse, “Keep an Eye on Dan” mines the stress of the handovers in child custody. Again, there’s the idea that even after a love affair has ended, the participants remain in competition: who has lost more weight? Who’s the best parent? There’s a typically mundane-but-moving ABBA moment when the departing mother pulls her car over to the side of the road once she thinks she is out of sight, only to bang the wheel of her car. At the end, Andersson stretches his fingers across a storm warning phrase from old hit “SOS”. “When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on?”

The stress is briefly relieved by “Bumblebee”, an adorably schmaltzy tribute to the endangered insects that is bound to be performed at primary schools around the world next year by tots in pipe cleaner antennae. The domestic drama picks up again pace on “No Doubt About It”, on which the women sing of throwing childlike tantrums in the face of husbands “too good” for them. It’s a sax-stacked belter. You have to wonder how happy Faltskog and Lyngstrom feel about being cast as the drama queens irritating their long-suffering spouses. But they deliver the track with great gumption.

ABBA in the studio (Ludvig Andersson)
ABBA in the studio (Ludvig Andersson)

Ballroom closer “Ode to Freedom” is a gentle fade out, with a melody that glides safely, if not very memorably, around the theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake waltz. The mood glows with harp and good intentions. The lyrics find the band aspiring to “dignity” and failing to nail the “fleeting” nature of true liberty. There’s some slightly odd carping about the way the band’s privileged lives make it hard for them to align themselves with worthy causes. But they float past without lingering grievance.

Ulvaeus has said that although there are two songs that he and Anderson had half-written, this is the last we will hear from ABBA. They’ve owned the traumas and triumphs of their past with admirable honesty on Voyage. It’s a terrific, family-friendly smorgasbord of a record that delivers all the classic ABBA flavours. I think we can let them go now. Tack for the music, guys!

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