Although it was only eight weeks ago, the collective ecstasy felt at the arrival of two new Abba songs in September now seems like a cultural phenomenon – a hysteria, some have offered, in response to the miserable pandemic. Because I, like many, had made such a fuss of these two songs, I fired up their full-length album with nothing short of embarrassment: my insides clenched as I clicked past the songs I knew to the first album track, “When You Danced With Me”, fully expecting to come crashing down to Earth. Yet there it was again. The magical sound of music created in a vacuum. The autumn leaves on the street around me twirled like tiny mirror-balls, and I was filled with the warmth of winter – not our crappy English winter, but theirs, with their Seventies ski jackets and enormous, fluffy fur-lined boots.
It is clear on listening to Voyage, Abba’s first album in 40 years, why they released the stadium ballad “I Still Have Faith in You” and the sophisticated “Don’t Shut Me Down” as singles. It’s because most of the other songs on their album are too odd. Everyone knows Abba go for unusual imagery, such as super troupers (a type of spotlight) and historical battles, but not everyone is aware of the deadpan humour that lurks in some of their non-singles. In 1981 “Two for the Price of One” told the story of a man who answers a classified ad for a threesome and gets the girl’s mother into the bargain. On the new song “I Can Be That Woman”, the singer enters the living room after another late night and is met with a look of reproach on Tammy’s face. Then Tammy jumps off the sofa with a swish of her tail.
I am repeatedly stuck by the bizarre tone of late-period Abba’s domestic psychodramas. The voices of Anni-Frid and Agnetha – so clear and intimate, yet encased in the mystery of women you never really got to know – subject us to extraordinarily banal lines of self-interrogation. “He tells me that I have a tendency to exaggerate/and maybe he’s right, but that is beside the point!” one of them fusses in “No Doubt About It”. Who says that in a pop song? And why is it so riveting?
As we know, Benny and Björn write Abba’s songs and “the girls”, as they call them, sing them off bits of paper in the studio. Yet the girls are Benny and Björn’s ex-wives! Protected from press duties and stylishly silent, here they are, voicing divorce stories, playing the parts of complicated women in the words of their ex-husbands. “He’s too good for me, that’s for sure!” chimes one of them (I’m never sure which is which). “There I go, stomping my feet like a child!” How many real-life spats of yore are creeping into the lyrics? Did the girls, now in their seventies, enjoy taking a good hard look at their behaviour?
Abba do a great line in mature romance, though – a kind of knowing, twinkly-eyed boomer romance you don’t see anywhere else apart from on ads for life insurance. “Little Things” is a Christmas song, with a children’s choir and a mention of “tiny elves with wings”, but it also features two characters who are – to my mind, at least – a pair of sexy grandparents in bed on Christmas morning, hearing the children getting up, but not having to get up themselves because they are only grandparents. “You’d consider bringing me a breakfast tray, but there’s a price”. The skill of any great pop writer is to capture, in song, the very beginnings of love, but Abba are rather good at writing the second act.
There is nostalgia, too – “Just A Notion”, first written in 1978, is a glam-rock stomper that brings before the mind’s eye an image of dancing thighs encased in yellow satin. And “Take Good Care Of Dan” is truly Seventies in its sentimentality and schmaltz, a story about a divorced mother and her son: she bangs the steering wheel in frustration over a pumping disco bass. The stately “Bumblebee” features a paradiddle on the snare, the kind of drum sound beloved of Abba in the past, giving their music a vaguely military, Mitteleuropean grandeur. The song is about the decline of bees: “a world without him, I dread to think what that would be.”
As someone pointed out the other day, Abba have just broken up again: before Voyage was made available, they declared that there would be no new music, ever. They can now return to comfortable retirement. Yet their closing track “Ode To Freedom” – which sounds like the national anthem of a now-devolved country of the Austro-Hungarian empire – would suggest that they are not yet free. “If I ever write my ode to freedom, it will be in prose that chimes with me/It will be a simple ode to freedom, not pretentious but with dignity.” Who says that in a pop song?
[see also: Abba are back – with the old magic intact]