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7 September 2021

The pursuit of the new behind ABBA’s return

How hologram avatars have removed the stress of performing live –– and granted a much loved band eternal youth.

By James Savage

Fans had barely dared to hope the day would come: nearly forty years after the release of their last album, Swedish pop legends Abba announced their return on 2 September. And not just with one new single, but two, alongside the promise of eight more songs and a radical new high-tech concert season to come. Yet if, in one sense, this was a long-awaited comeback, in another, Abba never went away.

The launch of The Voyage, the name of both the new album and concert concept, was split between an outdoor stage in an amusement park in Stockholm and a studio in London. From the UK, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the band’s male stars and songwriters, unveiled plans for a purpose-built temporary arena in the Olympic Park, where hologram avatars of the foursome (inevitably dubbed “Abbatars”) will perform their songs in a series of concerts next year. Singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid ‘Frida’ Lyngstad stayed at home in Sweden – they don’t enjoy the publicity, Björn explained. 

Abba revealed plans for virtual concerts in 2016, adding two years later that they were recording new songs. This provoked anticipation, but also nerves among devotees: would the band still sound like Abba? Would they try to create the sound of 1981 and end up sounding passé? Andersson’s focus in recent decades has been folk music, so would Abba in 2021 be all fiddles and accordions?

Longtime fans needn’t have worried: the new songs pick up from where the band left off, and they work. The pensiveI Have Faith in You” has strong shades of “The Way Old Friends Do”, and could easily slot into a West End musical, but it’s on “Don’t Shut Me Down” that the musicians really rediscover their groove, with a sound somewhere betweenIf It Wasn’t For The Nights and When All Is Said And Done”.

If the group’s final albums in the 1980s gave voice to the pain of breaking up, this new song, about an older woman making a surprise visit to an ex, is about healing and acceptance. As always with Abba, the lyrics seem to shadow the contours of the band members’ lives, but only obliquely.

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For Andersson, there was no question of doing something more radically contemporary: “We’re not competing with [rapper] Drake and all these other guys – we just can’t do that, because I don’t understand what the ingredients in the songs that work today are,” he said. 

Yet in some ways, particularly in their plans for staging, this latest incarnation of Abba is brashly innovative. Their futuristic publicity photo, clad in the suits they used to record their movements for the stage show, has already inspired a thousand memes. And in reflecting the authentic voices of late middle-age, the lyrics are innovative in their own way too: “I’m not the one you knew,” Agnetha sings, “I’m now and then combined.” That sounds a lot like Abba Voyage’s manifesto.

What persuaded them to come back after all these years? After all, the four members have spent the past four decades patiently pooh-poohing all talk of a reunion. In 2000 they turned down an offer of $1 billion to reunite for a series of a hundred shows. When asked by journalists, Andersson would say it was better to leave people with the memories of ABBA in their prime: “young, exuberant, full of energy and ambition”. Add to that their much-publicised dislike of touring (something that Fältskog was vocal about), and it seemed unlikely that a relaunch would get off the ground.

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Besides, there was no apparent financial pressure to reform. As Andersson noted at the announcement of the comeback, the best thing about being in Abba was not having to worry about the money. 

Indeed, since the band’s popularity was revived by the release of the Abba Gold greatest hits album in 1992 (now the second-highest selling album of all time in the UK), lucrative projects have followed one after the other. Mamma Mia the musical is now entering its third decade on the West End stage and the film of the musical was a giant hit; its sequel Mamma Mia 2 was the second highest grossing film of 2018 in the UK. Users of TripAdvisor rate Stockholm’s Abba museum, which opened in 2018, more highly than Stockholm’s vast 17th century royal palace.

To an even greater extent than other mega-bands Abba has managed to stay relevant, converting millions of new fans who weren’t even born when they last recorded a single. People young enough to be the stars’ grandchildren play “Dancing Queen” at their weddings. When in “Super Trouper” Lyngstad sings of “our success that never ends”, she could scarcely have understood how prophetic it was at the time.

Perhaps the simplest explanation for their return is that they wanted to. Björn explained that the quartet was still the best of friends, who enjoy each other’s company and “have a total loyalty”. With the avatars relieving them of the stress of performing live –– and granting them eternal youth –– an obstacle was removed. And the enduring goodwill of the public meant that if they could still provide the music, the audience would be there. The ecstatic reception that greeted the release of the songs shows ABBA, once again, might have judged this right.

[See also: Abba are back – with the old magic intact]