Gone quiet for 30 years as a group, ABBA is back with a new studio album. Are we still in a nostalgic mood? Is it true when they sing, “I’m not the same this time around”?
Avatars of ABBA perform in the video of the group’s newest single, I still have Faith in You. Screen grab: ABBA/YouTube
For the many youngsters who shop at Shein and those who endure the electro-cheese that’s mainly TikTok’s soundtrack, ABBA is likely a pop-culture relic. Disbanded since 1982, the year when Billboard’s number-one hit was Olivia Newton-John’s “raunchy” Physical, ABBA has largely existed on karaoke nights of men and women of a certain age and as the soundtrack of their own promo-vehicle ABBA: The Movie (1977), the stage musical Mama Mia (1999) and the movie of the same name (2008), followed by Mama Mia! Here We Go Again (2018). It’s unclear how frequently ABBA is played on Spotify (compared to Ed Sheeran?), but in their heyday, the Swedish quartet reportedly sold more than 380 million albums (what are those? Let’s leave that for another time). So massive ABBA was in terms of album sales for a quartet that only The Beatles (since we’re looking back, why not even further back?) sold more, at 600 million. E!Online reported that the four of them turned down USD1 billion in 2000 to reunite for 100 performances. So ABBA’s much-publicised reunion and comeback and an impending live show are a big deal. And they have not only announced a new album Voyage coming out in November, but also the release of two new songs at the same time in the past 24 hours. Are we on the cusp of another ABBA-mania, even when their fans are mostly those considered senior citizens?
I Still have Faith in You is the first among the two to be made available with an accompanying music video, which is a patchwork of old photos and footages, and an in-the-shadows preview of the gig to come. Written in 2018 for a TV show, but somehow not broadcasted or used, it’s now their comeback theme of sort. This is classic ABBA if classic ABBA is what rocks your boat. It is perhaps hard for fans to imagine them doing anything outside their range when they are making new music as septuagenarians. It’s not as if we can imagine ABBA as Kiss or, perhaps more accessibly, Blur. If Bee Gees can return, they too would be just Stayin’ Alive. Schmaltz was an ABBA signature, and they still sign that way. NME quoted Benny Andersson explaining why they won’t adopt current pop music trends: “We can’t, because I don’t understand the ingredients in the songs that work today, so it’s impossible to emulate.” Dripping with sentimentality (“It stands above the crazy things we did/It all comes down to love”), I Still have Faith in You is the quartet looking back, or unable to part with their dreamy young selves. The ballad builds slowly (another ABBA identifier) to emotion-tugging musical-theatre style arrangement (as if prepping for another Mama Mia film) that easily becomes guilty pleasure. But have we not already sung Thank You for the Music?
There is moderately more heft to the other released track, Don’t Shut Me Down. While I Still have Faith in You is written to bring a stadium to its feet (and it will!), this is arranged for a dance floor to the DJ’s mercy. Similarly announced in 2018, but did not materialise, this is a potential dance-charter and stayer. Again, the song opens slowly, but when “the lights are on/it’s time to go/it’s time at last to let him know” and the showy piano glissando strikes, you’re in familiar territory. Cue to grab your partner by the hand and hit the dance floor. Voulez vous? Only thing is, you’re back in what was called a discotheque. Don’t Shut Me Down is no Dancing Queen, but you may want to scream. When was the last time you danced to a song that encouraged you to sing along, let your hair down and your voice out? Yet, it is not quite the disco banger it could be. One sense restraint here, as if the band was asking, “do they still boogie?” Or leaving the others to do a worthy remix. But not too new. Almighty Records come to mind (full disclosure: we’re not huge fans of ABBA, but we’re partial to Abbacadabra)! In the present form, Don’t Shut Me Down does not pretend to be, like their creators, other than a blast from the past. Even with Internet-era language such as “I’ve been reloaded”, the baseline, the percussion, the xylophone(!)—they conspire to make Tetron bell-bottoms want to dance along.
At this age, the foursome—it is possible—was not having that much fun. We’re not saying they did not derive joy in writing and producing the songs, or singing them, but both tracks sound so serious that we almost forget that ABBA was very much associated with the campy or even the kinky (remember Two For The Price Of One from the last album, 1981’s The Visitor? Was it a more liberal era then?). At this age, the Super Troupers are not keen to perform in person. In announcing the ABBA Voyage concert (for 2022), described as “revolutionary”, we were told that Industrial, Light and Magic-designed digital “ABBA-tars” (think Gollum) would take their place. These are put together, according to the BBC, by “850 people (who) worked on recreating ABBA ‘in their prime’”. More remaining in the past while bringing ABBA to the AI-ready anything? As we hear mellower-sounding Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad stack-harmonise, “we have a story/and it survived” in I Still have Faith in You, we also hear the making of Mama Mia: Don’t Shut Me Down!