Abba are back – but with weary, washed-out, stiff-jointed music

Abba’s new songs never ignite as you want them to, but if you try to like them you probably will

 Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, of the Swedish band Abba, who have announced their first album in nearly 40 years.  Photograph: Industrial Light/PA Wire

Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, of the Swedish band Abba, who have announced their first album in nearly 40 years. Photograph: Industrial Light/PA Wire

 

Abba are back – but in a sense they’ve never been away. Their golden formula, whereby a heartbroken lyric is paired with an effervescent melody, is woven into pop’s DNA and the music of everyone from Taylor Swift to John Grant. And yet, it’s hard not to feel a sense of occasion as Bjorn Ulvaeus, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Fältskog and Benny Andersson unveil their first original music since 1982.

Such is the anticipation it is perhaps inevitable the two new tracks – taken from their forthcoming Voyage album – suffer by comparison with the band’s greatest hits. I Still Have Faith In You and Don’t Shut Me Down sound like Abba alright. But it’s a weary, stiff-jointed Abba and, while fans will want these songs to be good, the truth is that they they are a slightly washed-out and pastiched.

Don’t Shut Me Down is zippy, but it’s a pity the song isn’t as blistering as the concept behind it

I Still Have Faith In You is potentially the harder sell. It’s a melancholic ballad with wintry lead vocal from Anni-Frid Lyngstad. “I still have faith in you / I see it now,” she sings. Obviously the lyrics work at the dual level of addressing her relationship with her ex-husband Andersson, and also her “belief” in Abba as a living entity. Yet if the message sparkles, the music around it never entirely ignites as you want it to. There is the promise of a big, thunderous pay-off that ultimately fails to arrive. 

Instead the song plods gamely on. If you try to like it you probably will. But you might just wish you were listening to classic Abba instead. That said, it will certainly whet appetites for Abba’s new virtual tour, to take place at a specially designed venue in London from May 2022 and featuring the group as digital “Abbatars”.

Abba Voyage will open in 2022 at the 3,000-capacity Abba Arena at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. Photograph: Industrial Light/PA Wire
Abba Voyage will open in 2022 at the 3,000-capacity Abba Arena at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. Photograph: Industrial Light/PA Wire

Zippier by far is Don’t Shut Me Down. Here is the disco dervish Abba beloved by fans of Mamma Mia! and Erasure. It still has a heaviness in its marrow, though – it’s a sort of post-modern, super-meta Dancing Queen, where the dance has gone on too long and we could all do with a sit down. And it comes with a spiky message. “I’m not the one you knew,” intones Faltskog as the tune ratchets up from a melancholic opening. “I’m now and then combined/And I’m asking you to have an open mind now.” The takeaway is clear. The new, older Abba isn’t quite the group you remember. But they have something to say – and still deserve their place on the hit parade. Those are admirable sentiments. It’s a pity the song isn’t as blistering as the concept behind it. 

This isn’t to dismiss the reformed Abba out of hand. I Still Have Faith In You and Don’t Shut Me Down were the first two numbers written for Voyage.

The hope must be that they were limbering up and getting back into a groove. If that is what they sound like dusting off the cobwebs, then surely the rest of the new album, arriving in November, will be less fuddy at the edges and might give us some of that precious Abba gold.

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