A contribution by guest author Edward Gubbels.
Being an ABBA enthusiast from the very beginning, I was very curious. Suddenly there was the news of an upcoming album. Hey, what?! Why? Apparently, I still had to get used to it … moreover, I was also somewhat afraid: will they finally, worst case scenario, destroy their legacy? Something Björn kept saying in interviews after the group broke up: we’re never going to do anything again together, to keep that beautiful legend intact. That said, there is still this pleasant surprise after a whopping 4 decades. Let’s see if I can revive that old 70s feeling of (then) a new ABBA record every year. So, expectations were high. At the same time, I know in the back of my mind, I immediately had to adjust those prospects: it will neither have the magic nor the ambition of the past. And that makes perfectly sense: there is little to nothing left to prove (as stated by Benny in recent interviews). Except that ABBA has to pull out all the stops for this bold move. And in itself it is a very daring endeavor, 40 years after the last album The Visitors, an album from which it was all too obvious that all the joy, fun, entertainment of making a beautiful product together had completely vanished.
And who knows, perhaps that is precisely why Voyage appears now, to prove us all wrong? After listening to the new record, it is crystal clear that the vitality is definitely back, or still there for that matter. I think I’m not exaggerating when stating, practically all of us are looking for the familiar energy that ABBA is known for: beautiful powerful harmony vocals from the ladies and strong choruses. This is no different for me, so I notice that I am craving for the trax with precisely those characteristics: No Doubt About It, the Celtic-inspired When You Danced With Me, and (yes, another divorce drama) Keep An Eye On Dan (including SOS ending!). As far as I’m concerned, these three tracks most clearly have the well-known ABBA power: there is spice in them, there is a spark, there is intensity and they immediately stick in your head after 1x listen. Talk about efficiency that still exists! Moreover, there is an occasional touch of Folk in the songs mentioned, something that made ABBA so strong in the early 1970s, and it is working once again. Of the three tracks mentioned, No Doubt About It is my absolute favorite: the song starts and woppa, it immediately kicks in, immediate action, you have to join in… Exquisitely done! This is the pure ABBA magic: hear it once and you’re hooked.
NB: a fun fact for the trained ear among us – do I hear the violin arrangements of I’m A Marionette in Keep An Eye On Dan?
As mentioned above on Keep An Eye On Dan and meanwhile noticed by everyone, I assume, after listening to the new record: there are various references to old songs on Voyage. That on itself can be a hazard, but I expect it is intended as a fun element, to really be able to make the link to those recognizable old days. Like the piano tune from the intro to Dancing Queen, incorporated in Don’t Shut Me Down. Despite that, the number still has to grow on me, which is highly unusual for an ABBA song. Usually tunes from them don’t ‘grow’, they grab you right away (or not). The same goes for the cheerful join-in and 3rd single Just A Notion; again, it lacks the initial power to grab me immediately, despite the original vocals being used from those days (!). Moreover, I tend to hear some resemblance to Why Did It Have To Be Me? at the beginning (Arrival, 1976). Besides that, I get a bit of an itchy feeling with this song, which keeps bouncing around in my head: recorded during the Voulez-Vous sessions in 1978/79 and discarded at the time, as not being strong enough; why then do you think it will work 42 years later? Nice pulsating tune, but is it a real ABBA hit and therefore single worthy? Opinions are divided on Facebook. And again, a subtle link to times long gone: the “a ha ha” moment was already incorporated in Angeleyes (from that same Voulez-Vous album).
With the Agnetha ballad I Can Be That Woman, ABBA is once again stretching far beyond the comfort zone, in more ways than one: this time around ABBA is venturing into the country genre, something they’ve never done before. Through in-depth lyrics they enlighten us with the newest ABBA theme, namely domestic violence (if worst case). To this day, they certainly haven’t lost their appetite for an emotional-crisis soundtrack, judging from various tracks on Voyage. That being said, because of its very sensitive nature, this track could still serve as a follow-up to The Winner Takes It All (lyrically, actually a prequel) or is reminiscent -lyrically speaking- of One Man, One Woman (The Album, 1977). It’s a pretty strong tune, emotionally interpreted by Agnetha’s fragile voice. Speaking of those vocals: Frida’s voice has clearly aged better than Agnetha’s, unfortunately she sounds a bit thinner. Just an observation, not a criticism. And completely understandable, 40 years on. For example, with a song like I Can Be That Woman, it works great.
Bumblebee should evoke a Fernando feel, with those almost silly flutes at the beginning and the familiar beating drums that keep littering the song. And that’s why(?) it is sung by Frida. We’re not going to dwell on it too much; let’s leave it at: it’s a pretty cheesy song and the link to the year 1976 just doesn’t work (good enough) this time, despite cautiously touching a current topic like climate change.
The obligatory ballads and more lingering, slow, sometimes even drawling songs by ABBA à la I Have A Dream, the majestic opener I Still Have Faith In You and the lullaby Little Things in this case, appeal less to me, a feeling that lives on from the 70s; my heart always belonged to the (happy or not) upbeat songs of ABBA. However, I do recognize that I Still Have Faith In You is a powerful song to start off the album, and does act beautifully as a 1st single. After all, with lyrics about either newfound or still-existing friendships, it is very appropriate. In the context of the album, I am slowly starting to appreciate it more. And Little Things as a new track for the Christmas season? It’s really far too much sugar in my coffee, with that supposedly happy flute in the background; and engaging in far too much sentiment, additionally reinforced by the children’s choir at the end. Moreover, for me it shows too strong a link to Like An Angel Passing Through My Room (Visitors, 1981), which I didn’t like either at the time. It’s just not my cup of tea.
The closing track Ode To Freedom is a nostalgic reference to the Arrival feeling (the track Arrival on the 1976 album of the same name), with a touch of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. A truly magnificent and typical ABBA finale.
And to stay in those terms: this swan song by ABBA (we can safely assume that this is the last thing ABBA will ever do), is quite the reunion album. There are enough spots to discover the typical well-known ABBA energy, layered with the necessary references to the past (SOS, Fernando, Dancing Queen, Arrival, Angeleyes, I Have A Dream, The Winner Takes It All). They absolutely make no attempt to be hopelessly modern with this album ….it’s just familiar ABBA. And the ladies can really sing at least, referring to the current top 40 where nowadays anybody can make a record, often helped by a vocoder to quickly adjust out-of-tune or ill-sounding vocals, all for the benefit of instant success. Fortunately, ABBA doesn’t need those kinds of tricks. Perhaps that is precisely why there is a lot of revived enthusiasm for ABBA? Since last Saturday, they are on number 1 on iTunes all over the world, with ABBA selling more than the numbers 2 to 40 combined …. I mean, just saying. It seems like those old times are reactivated once again, with gigantic sales figures worldwide. Without a doubt encouraged by social media, which ABBA knows how to make clever use of: digital listening parties, various announcements, promotional interviews in the comfortable surroundings of Benny’s studio at home, the entire album on YouTube with promotional videos and on Facebook. And don’t forget the enthusiasm for the much anticipated digital ABBAtar concerts that will take place in London starting in the spring of 2022.
So: is Voyage a classic? It certainly is a strong and unique record, though I still have to give it a few more spins. I am not sure whether it will become a real classic in their oeuvre. Though, it is -no doubt about it- a beautiful and valuable addition to the catalogue of 8 albums that existed until recently. A very imaginative and creative dare, 40 years later, this bold step for mankind.
Text and image: Edward Gubbels