Review: ABBA Offer Fresh Timeless Tunes with 'Voyage'

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 9, 2021

ABBA are back with 'Voyage'
ABBA are back with 'Voyage'  (Source:Universal)

Prior to their new album, "Voyage," the band's first in 40 years, ABBA had long since been part of Western pop culture's collective consciousness. Nearly all of their catalog — strewn with more hooks and memorable choruses than any band has a right to — is part of the pop music canon. As a result, lesser-known songs like "One of Us" are as instantly catchy and memorable as bigger hits like "SOS" and "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)," earworms we need only hear once and end up humming the rest of the day.

With the 1999 Broadway musical "Mamma Mia!," and the jukebox musical films it spawned starring Cher and Meryl Streep (among many other famous ABBA fans), it didn't seem as though the world was necessarily clamoring for new ABBA music. And why would we, when the Scandinavian superstars have already produced enough hits to last a lifetime. Their classics will do, thank you very much.

But "Voyage" works very well for a few reasons, namely in that it is pure, unadulterated ABBA, unencumbered by the contemporary pop machine. There are no Max Martin co-writes, no tacky guest appearances by the latest hot young things, and no gawdy forays into styles du jour. What we get is ABBA's signature piano and synth foundation with guitars, bass, drums, strings, and, of course, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad's trademark harmony lead vocals. While it recalls the sound of their heyday, these arrangements sound less dated than one might imagine.

The album also succeeds because no fan is expecting — or for that matter, wants — a departure from form. Sure, "Don't Shut Me Down" recalls the spirit of "Dancing Queen" right up to its piano glissandos, and "Just a Notion" is "Waterloo" all over again. But critiquing them as such misses the point entirely: Benny Andersson's and Björn Ulvaeus's best ABBA songwriting and production work is as derivative as AC/DC's.

"I Still Have Faith in You" begins the album with a mature, stately tone carried further with the Christmas-themed "Little Things" (it wouldn't be surprising at all to hear gay choruses arrange this song for their holiday shows next year... San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, take note!). The Celtic-inflected "When You Danced With Me" is among the band's finest up-tempo pop moments this time around.

Only the awkward "I Can Be That Woman" doesn't work. Another piano ballad, the lyrics broach social commentary on excessive drinking and its strain on relationships in a borderline regressive way. Not quite an ABBA turd, it's the least necessary cut.

Otherwise, on the whole, ABBA's return doesn't merely attempt to satisfy fans (full disclosure: I'm not one), but offers a slate of songs that easily sit alongside other indelible tunes in their impressive body of work. "Voyage" is an impressive collection of songcraft, a breath of fresh air, played and sung be human beings in a pop world of ubiquitous programmed beats.

"Voyage" is available now.

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.