Here they go again: ABBA reuniting after 40 years

Baillie Walsh/BANG Showbiz/Reuters
ABBA, the Swedish pop group that produced hits like "Dancing Queen" and "Knowing Me, Knowing You," released its first album in four decades on Nov. 5. "Voyage" grew out of a new virtual reality concert experience that will debut in London in May.

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Swedish pop group ABBA recently shocked the world by reuniting after four decades, with one of its first new singles referencing its own history – and return. 

“New spirit has arrived,” sing the group’s two female vocalists on “I Still Have Faith in You.” “We have a story and it survived.”

Why We Wrote This

ABBA is known for its upbeat pop lyrics and memorable melodies. The pandemic has acted like a Bat-Signal of sorts for the Swedish singers, who return at a time when fans say songs like the group’s are needed.

The instantly recognizable sound of Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad, and Björn Ulvaeus spans – and unites – generations. Some observers say that ABBA’s music endures because Mr. Ulvaeus’ down-to-earth lyrics reflect everyday concerns, even as Mr. Andersson’s stratospheric melodies offer a release from them. Fans hope that ABBA’s new album, “Voyage,” released Nov. 5, can deliver on those qualities.

The group’s return was sparked by the creation of a virtual reality concert experience. Youthful-looking avatars of the singers – ABBAtars – will perform inside a London arena. While conceiving the show, which opens in May, ABBA recorded the 10-track album.

“It’s totally fantastic that it’s arriving now,” says American singer-songwriter John Grant, who has covered ABBA’s “Angel Eyes.” “We definitely need that because there’s been a shift in the world that’s been rather ugly.” 

Four decades since ABBA’s last album, the band’s music has weathered critical derision, changes in musical fashion, and Pierce Brosnan’s rendition of “S.O.S.” in the movie musical “Mamma Mia!” Yet, if anything, the band has actually grown in popularity over the years. So when ABBA recently shocked the world by reuniting, one of its first new singles referenced its own history – and return. 

“New spirit has arrived,” sing the group’s two female vocalists on “I Still Have Faith in You.” “We have a story and it survived.”

The instantly recognizable sound of Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad, and Björn Ulvaeus spans – and unites – generations. Some observers say that ABBA’s music endures because Mr. Ulvaeus’ down-to-earth lyrics reflect everyday concerns even as Mr. Andersson’s stratospheric melodies offer a release from them. Fans hope that ABBA’s new album “Voyage,” released Nov. 5, can deliver on those qualities.

Why We Wrote This

ABBA is known for its upbeat pop lyrics and memorable melodies. The pandemic has acted like a Bat-Signal of sorts for the Swedish singers, who return at a time when fans say songs like the group’s are needed.

“It’s totally fantastic that it’s arriving now,” says American singer-songwriter John Grant, who has covered ABBA’s “Angel Eyes.” “We definitely need that because there’s been a shift in the world that’s been rather ugly.” 

The super troupe – which consisted of two married couples – was long deemed uncool. A disco-glam wardrobe that included matching ponchos didn’t exactly help. Its breakthrough was the 1974 Eurovision competition, a kitsch annual televised event. The Swedes’ winning entry, “Waterloo,” was about that most natural of topics for a pop song: Napoleon Bonaparte. Over time, ABBA’s lyrics evolved. 

“Björn settled into the portrayal, or the point of view, of the ordinary man or woman,” says Carl Magnus Palm, whose books about the group include the upcoming “ABBA on Record.” “‘Dancing Queen,’ for instance, is one of those songs. That’s what the song is about – it’s just leaving your humdrum existence, if only for a few hours on the dance floor.”

The peppy pomp of hits such as “Money, Money, Money” or “The Winner Takes It All” belies the weighty lyrical subject matter. 

“I thought of them as this cute, foreign band that was like a pop-y Fleetwood Mac,” admits musician Nicole Atkins. 

But when the American songwriter recorded her 2014 album, “Slow Phaser,” in Malmö, Sweden, she frequented a restaurant with a karaoke jukebox consisting solely of ABBA. 

“As I got into them, I was like, ‘Oh, the reason that these songs are great is because there’s sunshine melancholy,’” says Ms. Atkins, who released the disco-pop album “Italian Ice” in 2020. “They’re songs you’d be crying to if you weren’t dancing to them.”

Capitol/AP
"Voyage" is the latest album from ABBA. “We have a story and it survived,” sing the group’s two female vocalists on one of the first new singles, “I Still Have Faith in You.”

ABBA’s saddest song, “The Day Before You Came,” from the early 1980s, reflected the divorces of both couples and heralded the group’s dissolution. But dozens of ABBA tribute bands worldwide kept the music alive, says Halina Ulatowski, founder of one such U.S.-based act, Dancing Dream. ABBA’s music has also been critically reappraised. “ABBA is more popular in the U.S. and the world now than it was in the ’70s,” says Ms. Ulatowski. “The reason for it is definitely the ‘Mamma Mia!’ stage show and the two movies.” 

ABBA’s return was sparked by the creation of a virtual reality concert experience. Youthful-looking avatars of the group – ABBAtars – will perform inside a London arena. While conceiving the show, which opens in May, ABBA recorded the 10-track album. 

“We were all terrified that there was going to be this crazy Cher auto-tune on things,” says Mr. Grant, the musician. “Hearing Frida and Agnetha singing together again, there’s nothing like it.”  

He adds that ABBA’s lyrics sometimes betray the fact that the Swedes are writing in their second language. Another new song, “Don’t Shut Me Down,” includes the phrase “You look bewildered.”

“That seems totally out of place in a pop song,” says Mr. Grant. “So when I heard that I was like, ‘They really sound like themselves in every aspect, even those weird word choices.’ And I love that.” 

The album cover depicts a solar eclipse in which the sun is starting to reemerge. Anita Notenboom, co-founder of the Official International ABBA Fan Club, found the image uplifting in this pandemic era. 

“I was thinking about what kind of name you can give [the album],” says Ms. Notenboom. “I thought, ‘Maybe they will call it ‘Hope.’’ But when I heard that it was called ‘Voyage,’ I thought, ‘How appropriate. ... We are going on a voyage with them.’”

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