Perfect 10: why ABBA Voyage is 2021’s album of the year

It’s been in the public domain for a month but after 40 years what’s a few weeks between friends? With their comprehensive track-by-track review, Steve Pafford and Eileen Dover bring you quite possibly the most welcome and certainly emotional return in pop music. ABBA Voyage is 2021’s album of the year and they’re going for gold.

It’s December 1981, and the Swedish pop juggernaut that is ABBA have just shot straight to the top of the charts with their eighth studio album, The Visitors. 

It’s a time of old friends and new horizons, of turbulence and change.

Margaret Thatcher is halfway through her first term as the first female Prime Minister of the UK and the wider western world.

It’s also the closing weeks of my first term at high school, where in a curiously symmetrical way, my education had begun in 1974 just weeks before the awesome foursome’s show-stopping win at Eurovision. Far from crashing like Napoleon at Waterloo, ABBA triumphed at the song contest and on the charts. Waterloo (the single) hit No. 1 in the UK and even reached the Top 10 in crucial markets like the US and Australia.

You don’t need me to point out that between Waterloo and The Visitors, ABBA were an undisputed worldwide pop phenomenon whose male half — Benny Andersson (music) and Björn Ulvaeus (lyrics) wrote a endless stream of implausibly killer commercial singles, in a language that was not their own. Moreover, Benny & Björn wrote better songs in their second language than most songsmiths can compose in their native tongues… and, exemplifying that home is where the art is, most of the material was sung — impeccably — by the girls who were their respective (common law) wives for most of the band’s professional life, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog. 

Swedish spouse mafia anyone?

It’s often said that ABBA had two distinct career phases: that they were originators of the purest pop of the 1970s, but managed to achieve some of their finest work in the early ’80s. Their early style is encapsulated by Waterloo, with its strange metaphors and heavy-handed Wizzardry, while their late style towards the end of the decade is typically described as moving towards more political lyrics and a richer, more nuanced synth-based sound that culminates with The Visitors. The group’s now penultimate studio album is an eerie masterpiece steeped in the political paranoia and terror of the Cold War – as the epic title track illustrates: “I hear the doorbell ring and suddenly the panic takes me / The sound so ominously tearing through the silence.”

Embodying the unease and tension of the album, the band’s own ship was sailing on stormy waters. By the end of 1981 both couples had divorced, and the following year their final recordings were greeted with a marked downturn in sales as a new and exciting second British Invasion of pop tarts headed by The Human League, Duran Duran and Culture Club replaced the faltering old guard.

Ladies and gentlemen, ABBA had left the building.

Did I say final? Because although 1982 also did for Adam And The Ants, The Jam, Roxy Music and the ‘classic’ line-up of Blondie, in 2021 ABBA have done something utterly remarkable that no other major band has ever managed to pull off: they’ve returned to make a further album with exactly the same line-up, four decades — yes, FOUR DECADES — years later. The pop titans have attempted the seemingly impossible: balancing the lure of nostalgia with the pull of the present day. And amazingly, they pull it off, shooting to the top of the charts in almost every chart on the planet.

To put that into perspective, the last ABBA album to hit the top of the charts when they were still an active entity was 1982’s optimistically titled double compilation The Singles: The First Ten Years.

It’s like Steps never happened. 

In fact, imagine a world in which Stock Aitken Waterman never happened. Where there was no Nordic a-ha, no Pet Shop Boys, no Madonna (oh, if only)… and Michael Jackson was still black. Because it finally happened: ABBA announced in September that not only have they reunited for their first album in 40 years, but they’ve an additional series of digital ‘ABBAtar’ concerts on the way, premiering at the swankily bespoke ABBA Arena at London’s Olympic Park in May.

With their typical Scandi stubbornness, they‘ve consciously kept themselves out of trends. Benny said he doesn’t know the ingredients of today’s pop music, so they. didn’t try to emulate anyone… but themselves. If anything, there are elements of Voyage that are a reflection of the evolution of Björn and mainly Benny towards musicals, folk and classical music since ABBA were put on ice.

In not jumping on whatever pop bandwagon they could have hitched a ride to, in musical terms much of Voyage sounds just like the album they might have released in 1983 had they stayed together.

In other words, Voyage makes no attempt to sound like anything other than ABBA.

“We decided early on that we’re not going to look at anything else,” Björn recently explained to The Guardian. “We’re just going to do the songs, the best songs we can right now. That meant writing lyrics I could get some of my thoughts of these past 40 years into, and add some kind of depth that, hopefully, comes with age and that makes it different from the lyrics I wrote 40 years ago.”

They may have kept the music on “absolutely trend-blind” to modern pop production, but Agnetha and Frida’s voices now have a slightly world-weary, aged tone to them, their vocal range a touch lower than in their heyday.

Those lyrics, too, are indeed peppered with tentative nods to the passing of time, faithful friends, and the demands of parenthood.

If the trailer singles released in advance of the album proved anything, it’s that they’ve been bottling up disco-pop lightning and earworm hooks for years. They picked the perfect time, too: We could all use some of that glittery Swedish energy to get us through the darkness right now.

Despite being pretty much the perfect pop group, no ABBA album was ever flawless. Each LP was always a curious collection of musicianship, brilliance, cornball, a few dodgy lyrics and the occasional schlager. Even the alluring weirdness of The Visitors has a couple of pop hedge-betters in the shape of Head Over Heels and Two For The Price Of One to lighten the mood. Voyage continues that variety show and fits into their canon perfectly. Even the solar eclipse depicted on the cover employs — almost certainly not a coincidence — autumnal colours very similar to The Visitors and the record-breaking hits collection that brought them back from the wilderness, ABBA Gold.

Having said that, despite Voyage opening and closing with Frida-led tracks just as they had done on The Visitors, Super Trouper is the obvious album to compare it to: a ten track mix of varying tempos, styles and sonic soundscapes, with the bulk of the new record recorded during three recording blocks in 2017, 2019 and 2021.

Moreover, much of Voyage has been constructed to push numerous buttons, containing as many enticing little flashes of past glories as possible, with further tracks having begun as Benny Andersson solo pieces for outside projects.

No matter. Recycling old morsels worked for David Bowie on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). And it worked for the Rolling Stones on Tattoo You, too. Both of which were yardstick early ’80s works all their subsequent albums would be compared against.

But what is really exceptional is that this reflective album comes 40+ years after their peak, from ’70s chart-dominators to wizened elder states people of pop in their 70s breaking new ground, but always retaining their unique Abba-ness.

It’s truly wonderful they came back, even just for a short while. And if this is it, then what an elegant and classy way to go.

On with the show.

I Still Have Faith In You

Eileen

What a perfect start to ABBA 2021. I must say I feared that like so many artists of a certain age, they’d have recruited the assistance of autotune or something technological to “revive” their sound or create a new sound. As a pure pop act, the Fab Four were always close to perfect and that stands in any decade we hear them. I still have faith in ABBA and obviously it was well placed. I Still Have Faith In You is more than a song – it’s a testimony of unbelievable talent that could sleep for 40 years and still return as fresh and anticipated as ever.

Steve

With its elegiac origins in a Benny instrumental — featured on the Swedish film soundtrack The Circle — called Kyssen (The Kiss), Faith is a personal acknowledgement of the wondrous transcendental power and sweep of music and the way it bonds people together, especially two former couples whose music gained a new lease of life in the 1990s without them having to lift a finger. Though some find the lyrics a little schmaltzy, the song was precision calculated to play on the heartstrings  and move the fans the most with a perfect mix of nostalgia, memories, new start, forgiveness, friendship, and talent that hasn’t vanished into this vast. Benny and Bjorn even did a latter-day Bowie by cleverly slipping in little Easter eggs to remind listeners this is the same band that brought you all the famous hits of yesteryear. B&B not R&B, right? 

With Benny and Bjorn being the perfectionists they are, they thought everything through to their obvious conclusion and so as Faith is a Frida lead, you get fabulous flashes of her previous ABBA highlights, including Fernando (the military drums) and being in waltz time, even a flash of the Macca-inspired Minimoog from Gonna Sing You My Lovesong (at 2:04). There’s an altogether more surprising semi-reference with the twinkly synth line that replicates the very last “Do I have it in me?” line only one note out from the similar sounding outro to Sheena Easton’s Bond theme For Your Eyes Only. But as filmic as Faith is, I’d just put that one down to coincidence, even if it was everywhere just as The Visitors was being finished off. A Sleeping Beauty of a song. 

When You Danced With Me

Eileen

“I can remember!…”

It’s difficult not to compare new songs with classics, but this pleasant song gives us a bit of Gaelic Arrival vibe while serving up its own unique and toe tapping flavour. A grower.

Steve

There’s something of the Highland fling about this one. When You Danced With Me is like the long-lost Celtic cousin of Super Trouper’s The Piper, with Frida and Agnetha both singing lead in perfect harmony. But as well as the Gaelic influences, you can really hear Benny’s roots in Swedish folk music. Monumentally joyous and uplifting as only ABBA can really pull off.

Little Things

Steve 

The kernel of this track has its antlers in an even littler Benny instrumental called Red Christmas, the theme for a Red Cross campaign in 2005. Overlaid with recorders and glockenspiels, it‘s more of a nursery rhyme turned lullaby carol than a traditional bells and whistles Xmas song. It’s slushier than a snowy road after the rain returns and more saccharine than Sweetex. Though with all four ABBA members grandparents a deliberate family favourite was always going to be in the running. Punk they’ve never been.

Some observers have expressed surprise and even horror at a festive tune sitting pretty at third place in the running order, but then Happy New Year was just as seasonal and that kicked off the second side of Super Trouper without too much fuss. Little Things is its prequel in a way, though there are more obvious echoes of another Frida-led hit, I Have A Dream, which would have been the 1979/80 Christmas and New year No.1 had it not been for Pink Floyd’s pesky Another Brick In The Wall. Like that bygone pair, the second half of Little Things features a children’s choir, so it seems eminently fitting that the group have just announced they’ve made the fourth Voyage single their second song for UNICEF (after Chiquitita) by donating all their royalties from the track to the kids’ charity. The John Lewis telly ad-style video (replete with extra bars in the bridge and coda) just adds to the wholesome homeliness. A sleeper. Pun intended.

Eileen

As I listened to the lyrics I was surprised to hear a festive song among the tracks included. After so long away it kinda makes sense as there were so many ABBA-less Christmases over the past 40 years. Regrettably, records are more keepsakes or memorabilia these days but any swag from the Voyage campaign is the perfect gift for the ABBA enthusiast in your life (hint hint). 

Don’t Shut Me Down

Don’t Shut Me Down

Steve

“A while ago I heard the sound of children’s laughter…”

It’s tempting to speculate that this melancholic corker may have been sequenced to follow Little Things purely for that evocative opening line. Either way, it’s the second of the two songs previewed prior to the album’s release, and the first of only three tracks on Voyage to feature Agnetha singing lead. It’s also more deceptive than Faith, because it starts off all Disney but then with an outrageous blast of vaudeville saxophone bursts into this mid-tempo marvel that typifies the “now and then combined” approach of a brand new song stuffed with enticing flakes of former glories.

With the quirky knowing lyrics (only Björn could rhyme ‘frustration’ with ‘transformation’) occasionally echoing The Day Before You Came, the narrative seems to be simultaneously about having changed as a person (“I’m not the one you knew”) but also he band reforming with an introduction to the ABBAtar concept: computers get “fired up”, “hot” and “shut down”. “And now you see another me, I’ve been reloaded (yeah!).” The subsequent line suggests Björn was a fan of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception: “I’m like a dream within a dream that’s been decoded”.

I think all ABBA fans had a profound emotional reaction to this song, but especially the immortal moment at 1:26 when you hear Agnetha and Frida (now and then) combined to create the beautiful alchemy that is the third voice of ABBA. All these weeks later and I still marvel at how happy/goosebumpy/joyous that moment makes me. And I’m not the only one.

Emotive as ever, the vocals are so damned good that they equal anything on where the band left off in 1982. Now that may be performance and recording technique, but it is just heartwarming to hear them back in solid form.

Like almost all of ABBA’s music, there is always depth and infinite layers to their songwriting, something you’ll pick up on subsequent listens. For example, over a snappy snare note how Benny’s bass line dances around and ‘responds’ to Agnetha’s vocal. Then the second verse and chorus is elevated one full tone from the first. Finally, there are additional fills and embellishments moving through the whole track which maintains its momentum. Add A&A’s tight harmony, fantastic production and musicianship and you have yet another bona fide ABBA classic. After 40 years it was way beyond what anyone expected.

Certainly some of musical themes are borrowed, because more than anything else on Voyage, DSMD has been deliberately filled to the brim with clever little Easter eggs to remind everyone that this is the same band that brought you all those famous tunes of yesteryear: Benny’s Dancing Queen-style sliding glissando across the piano keys, which then propels the track into a rhythmic cross between that dance floor fave and 1981’s One Of Us. As the song steps up a key-change later on, violin-like disco strings evoke Voulez Vous’s If It Wasn’t For The Nights as if to say “Pop hooks? Pah, we’ve got an arsenal of them!”

Song of the year and ABBA Voyage’s ultimate pearl. The European canon is back, back, BACK!

Eileen

This song begins like a lullaby and honestly would deliver harmonious and inspiring dreams if listened to before bed. The only problem with hearing it right before bed is that you might find yourself dancing in your room by the moonlight. If you’re fortunate enough to have a man after midnight, or any partner of any gender in your bed (I’m hinting again! This gender fluid lady wants someone to help me chase the shadows away) one might be inspired into a spinning shoulder dance, or any mooshy, sentimental , romantic film-style late night dancing foreplay. Maybe try listening hours before bed at first.

Just A Notion

Steve

A-ha-ha! Fun and frivolous ear candy that ends the first side. Deep inside? Well, lyrically it’s nothing too meaningful. And in aficionado terms it might not have been the most obvious cut from ABBA’s archive of unreleased recordings to make it on to Voyage, but by including a three-word title that starts with ‘Just’ it’s almost as if supremely protective guardians of that vault Benny and Björn are deliberately toying with their fanbase by not opting for the obvious one, even if they were on record as regarding Notion as “unmixable”.

Despite the obvious sonic challenges in finishing off a ’70s analogue outtake with 21st Century digital tech, this one has grown a lot lately. The LP’s third 45 is a joyous singalong with lots of references to ABBA’s glorious past, though you can see why Just A Notion was rejected for the Voulez-Vous LP back in the day. Its good time bar-room boogie-woogie vibe might have fitted on Waterloo but would have already sounded dated in 1979. Though, curiously, it anticipated the early ’80s success of retro-crap acts Chas & Dave and Shakin’ Stevens, which is marginally less disturbing than being reminded of Remember You’re A Womble whenever the intro revs up.

Eileen

This catchy gem is classic ABBA. A fluffy danceable love song. The notion of love seems so possible and a full tilt love affair can unfold in an evening and on the dance floor. The searing signature harmonies flow seamlessly in true ABBA style and all is well!

Remember, member, member, what a pop group, pop group, pop group they are.

I Can Be That Woman

Steve 

Stand by your dog. It’s no coincidence the canine in this song is named after D-I-V-O-R-C-E specialist Tammy Wynette either, because you can really imagine the KLF cohort sinking her teeth into this. I Can Be That Woman is a country flavoured gem with so many layers that it seems to live a life of its own. It’s as though Björn took the storyline from The Winner Takes It All and wrote a prequel.

We hear a review of a warring relationship that has come to an end, where the singer laments over what could’ve been and describes instead what happened.

Employing that unmistakable vocal cry she learned from Connie Francis, Agnetha’s voice is heartbreakingly gorgeous, and when she sings about those wasted years it’s hard not to feel the bottom lip tremble. The song has a great chorus, and at times in the build up it reminds you of Roxette’s Listen To Your Heart and even Zucchero and Paul Young’s sugary duet Senza una donna (Without a Woman).

Eileen

One of my favourites. Over the past 40 years we have seen such a drastic change in every aspect of music production but one thing remains despite any trend or format or style or lack of style: ladies and gentlemen, the ballad. Bangers are usually the meat and two veg of a record but the ballad is often my favourite track on any given album. Agnetha Fältskog never fell short of soothing an aching heart or ten and I’m sure I Can Be That Woman will be added to both my heartbreak playlist as well as my transpirational playlist. 

Keep An Eye On Dan

Eileen

A disco synthpop warning from a momma bear to a poppa bear that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Super Trouper or The Visitors. Though Agnetha still loves and believes in the love of her ex, she’s quick to remind him, while we’re all dancing, that she’ll be “back on Sunday to get him/so keep an eye on Dan.” Could this have been a ballad? Yes! But it’s just fine as it is, despite the unusual subject matter. Some of the best dance tracks have sombre lyrics and there’s nothing wrong with therapeutically dancing the pain away.

Steve

It’s no coincidence that Knowing Me Knowing You and The Winner Takes It All are two of Björn’s most acclaimed set of lyrics because despite their poptastic jauntiness, ABBA really excelled in the divorce song. And with Keep Your Eye on Dan they’ve put a new spin on it, using kiddie custody and visitation rights as the focus. The swoonsome piano motif from S.O.S. is another bittersweet Easter egg that brings the song to a conclusion, though you can’t help but wonder if it’s a hint that something horrid was going to greet her if she ever did make it back on Sunday.

Bumblebee

Eileen

A glorious song to start the day with. If a coffee company used this song in its advertising I’d buy their brand in a heartbeat. It’s a beautiful song that surprised me lyrically. When I think about ABBA, I never think about political issues or worldwide worries. Here, they brilliantly addresses climate change in this gem in a calm manner, not militant like so many songwriters and artists address the cacophony of problems we as a planet face. I believe in the need for militance in tone because we’ve got some problems in this world and some, like climate change, are pointing to our inevitable demise. ABBA chooses to mention the crisis occurring with bees without making it unpleasant or painful for the listener. One can listen to the song and not have the simultaneous meltdown you’d get from perhaps another a song that deals with the same subject matter. 

Steve

As free as a Bumblebee? Avowed environmentalist Frida just had to sing this one. Her intimate close-miked vocals, the use of subtle synths over choir and an organic orchestral arrangement marks this out as a highlight. Indeed, with its majestic Nordic/Highland flute-playing, this is so vintage ABBA you could be forgiven for thinking it must be the secret track on Super Trouper you’ve only just discovered. That is bears a passing resemblance in its twinkly synth soundscape to that record’s Happy New Year is surely not a coincidence. In fact, there’s…

No Doubt About It

Eileen

This song has a new wave, synthy kind of feel to it. It’s like disco meets synthpop. I feel like using many references to bands from the depths of disco to the bands that ruled the New Romantic wave of the early to mid Eighties. All of the parts that make up this song are amazingly blended and I can almost picture a film montage, like Molly Ringwald going to the mall and trying on a bunch of outfits, makeup looks, and shoes to get the guy, without losing her edge or sacrificing who she is for the guy or his snooty friends! I’m totally listening to this song the next time I get dressed. It’ll be interesting to see what I look like! 

“Ms Ringwald, call me. I need fashion advice!”

Steve

And so to the penultimate performance. I wasn’t too sure about this one at first. It has a very energetic Tiger-cum-Hole In Your Soul vibe: ie the more shrill, throwaway end of ABBA’s mid-’70s albums. Frida takes the verse lead with the most expressive vocal moment that vaguely recalls a fragment of Grieg’s piano concerto. Topped off with a classic joint performance from the ladies on the chorus.

Ode To Freedom

Eileen

Ode to freedom, in my opinion, is the song the DJ plays when the DJ wants to go home. The DJ must be mindful never to play something that sucks, but he wants to slow things down and create a sort of “reverse red carpet”. We’ve had fun, it was a great night, but it’s time to go. The lyrics are deep enough to ponder as we float back to life and out of ABBA’s beautiful dream land, certain to return again because this is fucking ABBA my friends. I have faith that if they choose to break up again, not to reappear for another 40 years, they’ll spin gold from the studio or the grave. No matter what, ABBA will always be perfect!

Steve

Oh, what a stunning way to bow out. Not for nothing is Ode To Freedom is an appropriate conclusion. An anthem not only to freedom but also to beauty. It’s solemn, ethereal — and with its calming communal vocals more like a hymn or an oratorio. The sparse strings are haunting, the lyrics a reflection on everything that had gone before them as a group and the way it just ends unexpectedly just adds to the mystery.

Here too there is a clear reminiscence of another great author of the past: Tchaikovsky. The rhythm of the accompanying arches throws back to the waltz of Swan Lake.

This is the obvious sentimental show-closer in the way that it’s slightly reminiscent of The Way Old Friends Do, the grand finale of Super Trouper. The Visitors, too, ended with a thing of peace and serenity (Like An Angel Passing Through My Room) that wasn’t deigned to be a commercial ‘hit’ but to impart feeling, which they do again here oh so well. And if Voyage really is the very last recorded work by the awesome foursome then Ode To Freedom is the perfect way to conclude the last ever ABBA album. That they returned at all is something to be eternally thankful for.

Phew. See, we got through a whole ABBA article without mentioning Mamma Mia. 

Oooops!

Steve Pafford & Eileen Dover

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