The strange second life of ABBA took another turn just a few weeks ago. The perennial success of ‘ABBA Gold’ has introduced consecutive generations of one of pop’s foremost creative engines, while barn-storming film series Mamma Mia relishes the camp delights of their formidable catalogue. Yet the emergence of ‘Voyage’ – as both an album, and a sort-of-live project – adds another chapter to a story that, to all intent and purpose, ended five decades ago.
The positives are easy to identify. ‘Voyage’ is a fun pop record, one that lifts many of the tropes that ABBA invented in the first place. It’s a theatrical 10-piece song cycle that neatly extends their work, while nodding to what came before. At its best – opener and lead single ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ for example – it comes close to reaching the transformative peaks ABBA scaled all those years ago.
Yet for a piece of fan service ‘Voyage’ remains confusingly slight. ‘When You Danced With Me’ has a surreal Celtic lilt, while the stunted disco of ‘Keep An Eye On Dan’ never achieves lift off. Indeed, all too often ‘Voyage’ is left down by the songwriting itself; ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ is cloying, and the banjo-driven arena-rock hoedown ‘No Doubt About It’ is teeth-grindingly naff.
Given Benny and Bjorn’s colossal post-ABBA success with Chess, it’s no surprise to find a theatrical vein to ‘Voyage’ – yet while ABBA’s original catalogue is packed with inner drama (the melancholy hidden within ‘Super Trouper’ for example) here it often feels one-note. The lyrics focus on fractious relationships without finding resolution, the glorious interplay of those classic hits subdued to repeated, sometimes simplistic phrasing.
But perhaps that’s too harsh: this is, after all, a new ABBA album. The use of sonic Easter eggs – we can hear the piano glissando from ‘Dancing Queen’ and the pan pipes from ‘Fernando’ for example – connect neatly to their earlier work, and it’s easy to see (or rather hear) where this will feature in the broader ‘Voyage’ live action project.
Ultimately, its failings resemble the ‘new’ Beatles material recorded for the ‘Anthology’ series. Could ‘Free As A Bird’ live up to ‘A Day In The Life’? Not a chance in hell, but it’s definitely worth the attempt.
Words: Robin Murray
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