ABBA’s 'Voyage': a dose of nostalgia amidst new era

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Despite their relative longevity in pop culture, it is safe to say that the recent announcement of a new studio album by Swedish disco-pop group ABBA was unexpected. Their first new release in four decades, “Voyage,” is set to arrive on Nov. 5, 10 songs long and complete with its very own winter holiday carol.

The group, composed of two formerly married couples, Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and Benny Andersson, famously broke into popular consciousness in 1974 when their hit song “Waterloo” won the Eurovision Song Contest. In the decade to follow, the band released nine albums and reliably topped European and U.S. charts. Their consistently emotional and upbeat disco sound, rivaled only by the earlier but equally popular Bee Gees, flooded a musically rich 70’s era. In fact, the persistence of their music in our popular culture can probably be attributed to its near-perfect representation of that specific genre and era — bell-bottoms, heady florals, go-go boots, and blown-out shag haircuts. When people want to access that era again, ABBA is the perfect vehicle.

Besides decade nostalgia, ABBA's revival in the 21st century can also be connected to an unexpected outlet: Hollywood. In 2001, when Catherine Johnson’s “Mamma Mia” hit Broadway as one of the most creative jukebox musicals of all time, ABBA’s songs reached a new audience and a new generation, generating not one but two film follow-ups. In 2008 and then a decade later in 2018, audiences everywhere immersed themselves in what seemed to be the dream: a never-ending summer in Greece, replete with crystal clear waters, gorgeous vistas, and, of course, a cast that will burst into any one of ABBA’s most celebrated singles at any given moment.

This is not to convince you to watch “Mamma Mia” if you haven’t already (though you should), but to say that ABBA's new album release was in no way unexpected because it was unwanted by the masses. ABBA’s music and style has clearly continued on long after they left the stage. It is why they left the stage that is significant here. By the year of their last album, both couples that composed ABBA had gone through painful divorces, putting strain on their creative dynamic. It was considered unlikely that they would reunite in any way, let alone to create new music.

The timing and the circumstances of their new release raised many questions about what the content would be like, as any band reuniting might. Any doubts about the quality of the new music were quickly vanquished by the release of two singles last week. “Don’t Shut Me Down,” eerily reminiscent of some of ABBA’s final releases, “Slipping Through My Fingers” (1981) and “Super Trooper” (1980), sounds like a reckoning, a ridiculously nostalgic and morose reminiscence on one’s life followed by a realization of remaining future potential. Though obviously referencing the reunion of people on hiatus, the song picks up where ABBA left off in 1982 with no evident shift in style.

The second single, “I Have Faith In You,” is an absolute homage to ABBA’s core energy. Unrecognizably quiet at the beginning, it explodes into a chorus so enormous that you can imagine half the world singing along. This is what ABBA has always been about — glamorous, uplifting, unfailingly cliché, and romantic. In a way, this single feels like a reference to the ABBA revival’s “Mamma Mia” roots — from its ensemble finale nature all the way down to the pit-orchestra instrumentation.

Lyrically, the two released singles give us a taste of what we can expect from the rest of “Voyage,” even if the name has already brought on some speculation (just like their 1976 “Arrival”). This will be a revisiting, a revival, and a finale all in one, just like their popular 1977 song “Thank You For the Music.” Lines like “We still have it in us” and “The apartment hasn’t changed at all/I got to say I’m glad” give us the sense that we are receiving the purest form of these writers’ feelings regarding the past few decades. Have they missed the music? Do they intend to continue? All of this, set on a melancholic-hopeful musical background, sets the scene for what will surely be an emotional experience for many fans.

And as if we could not ask for anything more, the new album is arriving with a side of live shows, just in time for the post-pandemic tour rush. However, considering their age and possible reluctance to reunite, the members of ABBA will not be making appearances on the “Voyage” series set to take place in a custom stadium in London in the spring. Instead, concert-goers will watch avatars of the members perform with a live band.

Most importantly, ABBA’s re-entry to the music world is both a contribution to and a statement on the state of nostalgia today — nostalgia for the old and the seemingly simple. Whether it is the popularity of the dark academia aesthetic or the mass obsession with “The Queen’s Gambit,” there seems to be an increasing number of people pining to be in another era. “Voyage” promises to take us all back, to create a new generation of people who can say that they got to listen to an ABBA album the day it was released.