I once heard about a Cambridge student who had done a PhD in the music of Abba. It seemed novel at the time, but Abba songs are highly complex. Good pop hits stand out because they contain clever little tweaks to conventional structure, but Abba go further than most. While an ordinary verse-chorus song repeats two or three melodies in an ABABCA structure, Abba’s “The Name Of The Game” goes – wait for it – ABCDEF! Really! Six distinct tunes uncurling in your ear, in a way you barely notice.
Abba disbanded in 1982 and they’ve not released any new music for 40 years – which means the two songs that emerged on 2 September, to great trumpeting, must be literally the best that Benny and Björn can come up with. The absolute best that Abba can offer to the world. So are they worthy of a PhD?
It’s a neurotic process listening to new material by a huge band that has lain dormant for ages. You feel protective, defensive; with the first notes there can be repulsion, alienation. Then there’s a swelling of the heart as, with great relief, your ears latch on to something familiar: in this case, the creamy 1970s double-layered voices of Agnetha and Anni-Frid as though back from the dead, and the sweet Abba intervals, those unmistakeable patterns of falling notes. New Abba tunes could not fail to provoke worldwide euphoria, especially now that people have finally relaxed into the band being something beyond a guilty pleasure.
“I Still Have Faith In You” is a lush, stately ballad pre-tooled for a stadium to sing. Its prettiest bits stretch down into low registers – quite unusual in contemporary music. Its chorus has the ghost of “The Winner Takes It All” – Abba know how to write something that sounds like one of their classics. The music video features terrible piped-in crowd noise, adding to the sense that the track has been around for years, and is intercut with slow-motion montage footage. Nostalgic, luxurious and extremely confident, the high-quality song is somehow enhanced by how silly they look in their press shots, in space suits, set for their album The Voyage, due out in November.
The second new track, “Don’t Shut Me Down”, is another beast entirely. Its opening has a West End feel, like Evita’s tentative address to the masses, but then it whizzes with a “Dancing Queen” mirrorball glissando into squelchy 1980s disco, giving the impression it’s going to be straightforward. But then it mutates, and mutates into something wonderful and strange, climbing from its funky base camp up through more levels than I can count (I have tried), delivering one melody, then lifting up to another, wearing its complicated structure so lightly that the only sign it’s completely bonkers is how difficult it is to sing afterwards. I challenge any musicologist to explain what is going on. It is worthy of a PhD. But the best thing, as ever, is that it works without even taking note of its complexity.
The lyrical drama is sexy, in a boomer way. A mature lady sits in the park, looking up at the house of an old lover, then turns up on his doorstep declaring that she is fired up (“don’t shut me down”). As with “I Still Have Faith in You”, the theme is ageing finely, like a good cheese – as if it’s better the second time around. “I’m like a dream within a dream that’s been decoded,” they sing – which is a good description of the song’s structure. “Don’t Shut Me Down” seems to lie far outside modern songwriting, the opposite of the throwaway hits “optimised for streaming” and the very definition of a grower – in a world that doesn’t have much time for growers anymore.
Abba reportedly turned down a billion pounds to reform at the turn of the millennium. Next May, in the Olympic Park in Stratford, they will make a comeback. They won’t be there in person: holograms will be performing instead, in a 360-degree experience filmed with the help of body doubles in their 20s. Nothing could be bleaker than heading to the Olympic Park to watch a hologram. But this “comeback” – some are calling it a “hologram residency” – is the biggest news in the pop world for years. Even bigger, though, was the news that Abba have joined TikTok.
But none of those things are worth getting excited about compared with the arrival of new music. What a great surprise – in an era when people release any old crap in order to have an excuse to tour, and anyone over 60 teams up with Greg Kurstin to co-write songs – that it is worth listening to.
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire