ABBA made its grand reentrance with two studio-polished, shimmering singles in September. They were bold and swooning from the start — a promise of old ABBA. In the lead single “I Still Have Faith in You,” the group wonders, “Do I have it in me?/ I believe it is in there.” It’s as much about them like us. And then it’s straight into the soaring piano glissando on “Don’t Shut Me Down.” Dancing queens, no doubt.
New ABBA doesn’t quite exist, but it doesn’t not exist either. The pop group’s Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad’s voices have a bit of wear, and they’re not current (though Voyage has been topping charts across the globe since its release). They’ve matured, and they get romanticism, grandeur; big things have had their moment. Their new tracks have moved on to the pressures of the climate, overtly on “Bumblebee,” and freedom outright, flatly on “Ode to Freedom.”
Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson throw around hooks and arrangements as sharp as they ever did, now souped-up with synths and sounds of the future, without bending to trend. On “Keep an Eye on Dan,” a near cousin to a video game’s lobby music jacks up the tension before a love-lorn shootout breaks out with, “I know that this shouldn’t be a traumatic event, but it is.” ABBA understands its sound is of the past, yet timeless.
It’s genuine to the ideals ABBA reaches for in Voyage that the group moves from gas-guzzling to tree-hugging. This is an album laden with nostalgia, but devoid of — for example — the acoustic strumming that characterized world hits such as “S.O.S.” Instead, ABBA blends the minimalist ding of an idiophone with emotional piano and orchestral arrangements, all while lyrics spin elaborate narrative and melodrama.
The taps of an SOS aren’t so far away, for good and bad. On the last track “Ode to Freedom,” cellos, flutes and violins plead for harmony. Back on “Bumblebee,” a track modern-day Elves might be caught belting out — well, there’s the problem. It’s an environmental anthem wisting for when Sauron wasn’t on the horizon, for Kumbaya.
ABBA tries to balance present and past, and while Voyage is occasionally sharp enough to pull it off, the lyrics sometimes take on the sour taste of a bubble, like bread left in the fridge too long. Sobbing has never been done like ABBA since ABBA, but Voyage also finds the band falling victim to the same ills that plagued the parts of its discography that aged worst. “Chiquitita” had a flippancy to it, a carefree attitude that crops up in modified form on “Little Things,” an ode to the material joys of Christmas morning.
ABBA holds dear to what it loves on Voyage, and in that way, ABBA sounds most stuck in the past — a refusal to learn, grow. Saving the bees is nice; reigning in corporations is better. Gifts are great, but “Little Things” doesn’t have the personal oomph to realize the joys of giving.
At the same time: You can look at ABBA’s album through an anti-capitalist lens, or take issue with their happy-ever-after melodrama. You can’t, however, ignore this is not an album about such things. It’s not a victory lap. It’s a dare: “Do I have it in me,” the super troupers wonder on the opener “I Still Have Faith in You.” Confidence builds from the synth-folk barn-stomper “When You Danced With Me,” up through the “Little Things” they love and straight into the bravado of “Don’t Shut Me Down.”
And when the group arrives at “Just a Notion,” the question behind the album — why did they get back together? — gets answered. Destiny, with a roaring electric guitar and a bouncing bass line, brought them together. The band took a chance to make some swinging good music. The rest of the tracks are the extras, the fun they turn to with a wink and a nod to luck, love and everything else that got them in the studio 40 years later.