Here we are in an age when artists that railed against the system are now selling their catalogs to that very system. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and others have all sold their music rights off for millions. It feels like the anti-thesis of rock ‘n’ roll to me. Granted they are alive to have a say unlike many other acts whose corpses are milked for t-shirts, commercials, and on and on. Still my personal opinion is why not release it all to the public domain. Let new artists take new spins on it. Why does it ALWAYS have to be about more $$$ every quarter?!
And that’s to say nothing of these creepy holograms making the tour circuit. No I don’t want to watch a Roy Orbison hologram. I can watch Black & White Night at home and it comes with Bonnie Raiit, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, K.D. Lang and a host of others… Cause if I am going watch a “live show” I may as well watch one with the real physical dude.
Sorry, I hadn’t meant for that tangent but I am sad that music is being further consolidated into the hands of a few whose only intentions are $$$.
What I meant to say is, I’ve listened Voyage, the new album by ABBA… FOUR TIMES IN A ROW. Is it that good? We’ll get to that in a moment. More importantly it sounds like nothing else on radio or in the mainstream at the moment and thus comes off so fresh and alive it almost made me cry. The only assembly line this music came out of was the ABBA factory in Sweden. ABBA has such a wide following in age ranges that they can drop the most ABBA sounding album ever and it will sound like the dawn of a new era of music all over again. The production, the harmonies, LOW NOTES, actual instruments, the word choices all wrapped with a Christmas bow (yes ABBA even gave us a new Christmas song).
Holy cheesus, ABBA is back! Of all the acts one swore were actually truly done, ABBA was it. The never did any of those farewell tours. They just quit. People have offered them millions over the years. But the quartet goes in the studio to record a couple tunes and instead drops and entire album of new work after 40 years. If you do not like ABBA well that is a shame. Despite the cheese and schmaltz there is undeniable pop mastery on some great records and even albums. But if that is where you stand this record is not for you.
It is 100% ABBA. The only other band to stay in one lane for the entire career was AC/DC and that band did one thing only ABBA had some variety in styles while still being ABBA. Hell, even The Rollings Stones trailed off here and there at times. I’m kinda of stunned that they pulled this off, actually. If you didn’t know it was a new record, you would swear it was a lost album from 1978. It’s like catching up with old friends you haven’t heard from in ages or rather 40 years.
OK. Let’s calm down. I am no ABBA super fan but as I said I listened to this four times in a row. There are no skips. There is variety from the opening power ballad, to straight disco, to an Irish aire, and glam rock. Plus as I mentioned a Christmas song… that doesn’t reek of being Christmas song. I am think I am in a state of shock not so much because it’s new ABBA but because when you here these songs you are reminded that pop can have weight and go high and low and not just be some cookie cutter tik-tok trend. These song have real emotion and history behind them.
The opening track, “I Still Have Faith In You” is power ballad epic. The ABBA team know how to build a song. And yeah it moved me. I got the chill of feels. Maybe part of that is thinking about 40 years on, with all their history, they deliver this early Christmas gift. But nah- the song is just so good. And shows a mastery of production and general craft. Towards the middle section when they raise the rafters instead of going for high notes like (insert mainstream belter here) they go for low notes. Which adds melancholy to song and takes it down while it is still going up. The anthemic conflict of four people with a past together.
If you were not convinced ABBA has arrived again with the first track the second song, “When You Danced With Me” comes in and announces, “Hey, remember us? We’re m************ ABBA”. It’s got the carousel motion of many of ABBA songs like “Chiquitita” or “One Of Us”. But it is one of the shorter tracks on the album and does not go full ABBA. This is an album created by people who know about a little skill called track order and the journey. Don’t make your move too soon, as it were.
Track three, “Little Things” could be the new Christmas classic we didn’t know we needed. If Mariah Carey’s, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is the modern reference point for upbeat holiday cheer than I see no reason why, “Little Things” can’t become the more reflective modern classic like the old warhorse known as, “The Christmas Song”. I’m still shaking my head in awe that ABBA had the chutzpah to put a Christmas ballad on a disco/rock record and it fits. But then I remind myself, it’s ABBA if anyone was going to do it…
“Don’t Shut Me Down” is the second single off the album and this is when the quartet goes FULL ABBA. It’s not a lyrical sequel to “Dancing Queen” but from a sonic perspective… Let’s just say DJs would do well to give the former played out song a rest and throw this track on in it’s place once in a while. It’s almost as if Benny and Bjorn have a machine that they just toss ideas into and out comes an ABBA classic. Also depending on how you look at the lyrics this song could actually be about their new avatars for the stage show.
Another reason I think I get giddy and emotional is the lyrics are so assured. And as poet I LOVE song-writers who can pull underused words into pop songs and hold some meaning. Bewildered? When was the last time that got dusted off.
I believe it would be fair to say, “You look bewildered”
And you wonder why I’m here today
And so you should, I would
When I left, I felt I’ve had enough
But in the shape and form, I appear now
I have learned to cope, and love and hope is why I am here now
OK maybe pop music in the decade has set the bar so low lyrically that anything even remotely resembling trying makes me swell. Nah- this is just great song-writing from master of the craft. When was the last time any mainstream song used the word bewildered.
I will continue track by track but I just have to say for now the album just gets more and more ABBA as it goes on. And the whole album flies by, with an average track length of 3:20. And honestly if you met some pour soul who’d never heard of ABBA or any of their music I would have no qualms with telling them to start with this album and work their way back. There is no jarring early or late period with this group.
“Just A Notion” is straight up glitter glam rock. “I Can Be That Woman” sounds like a sequel to “The Winner Takes It All” but with out the driving beat more a tone of surrender or apology.
“Keep An Eye On Dan”, lyrically seems the most personal. A song about divorced parents sharing custody of a child.
I know that this shouldn’t be
A traumatic event, but it is
And I feel so bad
My little boy looks so happy
He throws me his “go-mummy” kiss
And he loves his dad
And I’ve loved him too
Maybe I still do
But, it’s over
And also reminds one that Björn and Benny were part of the team that gave us the musical “Chess”. It has that musical narrative sensibility that many of best ABBA songs do. And it lands mid record almost like a reminder to the fans of what the quartet has been through as friends and lovers. Maybe even to remind the us all that just because they’re “back” doesn’t mean it is all glitter and neon lights or that this is any kind of official reunion.
Also of note is how clear the vocals are on every track. Not just in terms of technical ability but phrasing and how clearly you can hear each word. There is balance between the backing tracks and the vocals that a lot of modern pop screw up in a effort to be louder than the last song. I didn’t have to guess what the lyrics were. And at the very end they quote their previous hit, the relationship disaster “S.O.S.”
Track number eight is probably the 2nd most ABBA song on the album. Any ABBA fans will recognize all the hallmarks. From the tin whistle opening to the steady melody lines that get you humming along. And it is a song literally about a bumblebee in a garden. Which now on my fourth listen becomes a sort of rallying cry for the environment and it’s beauty. My poetry teacher often told us, “The more specific you get. The more universal you become.” You can substitute whatever nature sense memory in these lyrics you want for your own experience and the message becomes clear.
From thyme to bluebell
From hyacinth to lily rose
Oh, how I do adore the sight
Of his rather clumsy, erratic flight
And for now, I’m in my garden
Watching clouds sail with the breeze
Feeling carefree as I listen
To the hum of bumblebees
This is a case where the words are both song lyrics and poetry. It is hard to do both well. Most lyrics need the music to help sell the narrative.
Two tracks left. The second to last song goes back to full on Glam. And at just under three minutes, “No Doubt About It” is a song that gets in and gets out. And is in part why I kept playing the album over and over. I wanted more so I had to re-listen. Another factor may be that while it is 100% ABBA there is just not quite the supreme heights of other ABBA songs like “Super Trouper”, “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie (A Man After Midnight)”, or even “Eagle”. And maybe age has made the group more subdued. Maybe they don’t see the need to blow it out like their more youthful days. “Bumbleebee” had it been recorded in their 70s peak would’ve had a bombastic rah rah chorus like such classics as, “I Have A Dream”, “Thank Your For The Music”, or “Fernando”. All those hits have a chorus that rouse you up and get your blood going. I don’t feel like there is real moment like that on this album. BUT- it’s my fourth listen so… I must like it despite that.
But am I replaying it because I like it or because it just doesn’t sound like anything else going right now. Even as left field as Billie Eilish was when she arrived it still sounded too on the nose for the times for me. But this is such a breath of fresh air from a known quantity in a bleaker and bleaker mainstream music world. It’s as if the weight of the clouds of the last 8-10 years of 808s and auto-tune have been parted for a moment and a shimmering rainbow is cast down upon the in the pop landscape. The music masses reminded what pop music can be when you are not chasing tik-tok or every last nickle off YouTube. This music was not created by focus-groups or industry think tanks. It was created by people for whom music is the first and last breath.
So if it’s a great ABBA record why not just listen to the classics? Did we need this? No and yes. But more importantly, maybe they needed it and it’s not about us. I am definitely glad it is here because it reminds me of how great they are and reminds me that they are an act where the singles are stellar but that they also have a lot of album cuts that are not just filler. And it makes me want to revisit their catalog to see what I might have missed.
“No Doubt About It” ends with the lyrics “This is where it ends”. OK, it’s just a pop song. But come on, it literally leads into the last song on the album. So. Yeah. Track. Order.
The last track, “An Ode to Freedom” while a lovely well crafted tune doesn’t stay on the palette as much as other songs. And I almost wish ABBA would’ve blown out the speakers in a triumphant send-off. But instead of being predictable with a big send off they instead close the album out with what resonates almost like a prayer for the current times. Thinking it over more, it’s pretty damn brilliant. The whole effort is brilliant, give fans an ABBA album that sits alongside their best work. It doesn’t come in too hot or too cold. It cruises effortlessly in the lane ABBA created for themselves ever since they won Eurovison with, “Waterloo” in 1974.
They released a video for “I Still Have Faith In You”. It has great archival footage but at the end it also has what are being called ABBAtars. They look creepy. I think a touring show of an animated band is fine by me (i.e. Gorillaz) if the band is alive to consent to it and if you treat it more like a concert film than a live show. But they are trying WAY TO HARD for realism with all this and it just will never get there no matter how many motion capture sensors one uses. Real people are real… You can’t Wizard of Oz real musicians. So, I would have preferred they go for a style that was undoubtedly animated like the old Star Trek cartoon or something more 70s throwback. Since the band was not live in the video, instead of trying to pretend it is just have more fun with it and get more stylized. Don’t go literal go metaphorical.
But that’s a minor quibble. I won’t be replaying the video over and over. But this album… yeah it will definitely be getting spins. Hell, I’m even considering buying the vinyl and turntables just for the experience. Even with my non studio quality speakers (and ears). OK, let’s be real… knowing me, that is a voyage this dancing queen is not likely to take a chance on (every pun absolutely intended).
I Still Have Faith In You
When You Danced With Me
Don’t Shut Me Down
No Doubt About It
PS: I’ve been thinking about the music of my youth. Specifically stuff I was not into and how despite that it was inescapable to my ears. The hits were so huge and the landscape of music listening so much smaller that you bumped into Snoop or Mariah or Korn or the Lilith Fair ladies even if you didn’t like them. You couldn’t click next or migrate to some other website. Sure you could turn off the TV or radio but still… you would hear it someplace enough to voice your dislike of it. I mention this because I can’t recall the latest Doja Cat or BTS hit. Or even the latest from Lil Nas X who is supposedly the biggest thing now. The mainstream pop hits are just not EVERYWHERE like hits used to be. Those days are over. The landscape is too big with too many options.
However, I was not even looking for new ABBA music and it crossed my path and I heard it. That is how HUGE ABBA are in music dialogue THAT is what it means to be inescapable. Hell, even Prince dropped some posthumous music recently I missed. And I LOVE Prince. But here is ABBA inescapable and shimmering like a lighthouse light leading all sailing vessels back to the pop promised land.