I hadn’t really intended to use this website to blog about things. (I understand blogging is very passé these days and why should anybody be remotely interested in my opinions on anything anyway?) This is really just a place to post professional stuff. However, an event occurred this week of such personal seismic significance, I felt I wanted to write something about it.
There have been lots of major events in the last few years: COVID, Brexit, the increasing horror of the climate emergency, the increasing horror of the premiership of Boris Johnson. But for once, this week there came a glimmer of hope and some good news amongst the bad. I am of course, talking about the fact that, thirty-nine years since they worked together on their apparently final recording, the sublime ‘The Day Before You Came’, Swedish supergroup ABBA have released new material.
ABBA have been a part of my life since as long as I can remember. My Mum was pregnant with me when they won the Eurovision Song Contest in April 1974, and their albums were the soundtrack to my childhood. I remember dancing around in my living room to ‘Take A Chance On Me’, wearing the yellow woollen plaits that Mum had knitted for me so that I could ‘be’ Agnetha.
My teenage years coincided with that dark period in the mid to late eighties when ABBA’s cultural stock was at its lowest: they were a tacky joke that nobody would dare admit to liking. Nobody that is, except a few doughty fans like me. I remember requesting ‘Dancing Queen’ at a friend’s birthday disco party, and being met with a snort of derision by the DJ. Needless to say, it didn’t get played. But it never stopped me asking.
Happily, ABBA’s renaissance was lurking only just around the corner. In 1992, the classily repackaged greatest hits compilation ‘ABBA Gold’ was released, coinciding with Erasure’s ‘Abba-esque’ hitting number one in the Singles chart, and the arrival of the first ABBA tribute band, Björn Again. In the years since, their legacy has been well and truly reassessed, and the odd dissenter aside, Benny, Björn, Anni-Frid and Agnetha’s musical genius has been accorded the respect it deserves.
I never expected a reunion. Between them, over the years, all four had rejected the idea so comprehensively that even the suggestion seemed utterly absurd. It seems incredible now, given what has happened, that the most it felt realistic to hope for was one final photograph of the four of them together. After all, even when they were all there together for the Stockholm film premiere of ‘Mamma Mia’ in 2008, we had to settle for a group shot that inconveniently had the likes of Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan getting in the way.
So when the announcement came, back in April 2018, that completely out of the blue, they had regrouped and recorded two completely new songs, I - like everybody else - felt pretty gobsmacked. The tracks were supposed to be appear that December, but that date slipped by, apparently initially due to technical complications with the avatar project that has inspired their decision to reunite, and subsequently because of the pandemic. While that was initially frustrating, maybe it has turned out for the best after all. For God knows, after the eighteen months we’ve been through, didn’t we all need some good news to brighten our lives?
And so to Thursday evening’s big announcement. My husband Mark had been nervous all week. He kept saying to me ‘I’m frightened’. What if the new songs just didn’t live up to expectations? I must admit I felt relatively calm. I trusted ABBA’s judgement that if they’d come up with something that they didn’t feel was up to their old standard, then they wouldn’t have released it. Their quality control over the material they put out had always been pretty damn good, after all. Nevertheless, I did feel a little bit sick as 5:45 p.m. approached, and I sat dutifully at my computer waiting for the livestream to start, hoping desperately that they hadn’t employed James Corden to host it.
In the event, I needn’t have worried, about either the quality of the material or the presence of Corden. After some initial preamble from Stockholm and New York, we got to hear the music for the very first time.They’d already teased us with the opening bars of the first song ‘I Still Have Faith In You’, but then Frida’s warm, velvety voice - sounding lower and a little older - crept in, and we were away. This first song, a stately, anthemic ballad in waltz time, is an unapologetic tribute to the strength of the bonds between the ABBA members: these four, ‘ordinary’ Scandinavians, each with their own special individual talent which took them from modest homegrown success to superstardom. It’s grandiose and bombastic, full of the musical flourishes for which Benny is renowned, even including festive-sounding bells that appear in the most rousing sections of the song. It’s appropriate given the epic nature of its subject and arrangement, that it should join the handful of classic ABBA tracks that clock in at over five minutes in length. However, the structure is more complex than a traditional verse/chorus format. Indeed, the ‘chorus’ - the spectacular choral section that affirms "We do have it in us" - doesn’t actually appear until a full two minutes into the song. ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ also ticks multiple boxes by cleverly reminding us of classic ABBA: the heavenly, layered harmonies from the two women, and artfully deploys the chemistry that occurs when they sing the same melody an octave apart: mezzo Frida taking the lower line beneath Agnetha’s soprano. There’s even a hint of rhythmic backing vocals from Benny and Björn to remind us of their contributions to the choruses of ‘Take A Chance On Me’ and ‘Super Trouper’.
The lyrics are quite explicitly about the experiences that these four people have shared in the fifty years they have known each other, and the song's conclusion that ‘It all comes down to love’ is pretty much a perfect description of their journey together. They’ve gone from twenty-something romantic sweethearts, via marriage and then divorce, to a deep, enduring friendship and respect for one another. That’s a hell of a voyage for anyone to go on: an epic that can indisputably be described as a "bittersweet song". Over the years since ABBA stopped working together, I’ve no doubt there have been times when some kind of reunion has been suggested. Presumably up to three quarters of them might have been up for it, but at least one nixed the idea. They had to wait until now, when all four were comfortable and happy with their legacy, for it to happen: a time when, for instance, Benny - a composer for his entire life - no longer bristled at being known mainly for his decade long work with a mere pop group; a time when Agnetha felt able to step back into the spotlight after years of ambivalence towards fame and celebrity. A reunion is something that they - and we - previously thought was - to borrow from the lyrics of the song - "inconceivable". Who but the most delusional ABBA fan could ever really have believed that they would reform, when even ABBA admit that they "never really thought (they’d) feel this way." Nevertheless, the song takes us on the same journey that ABBA themselves have travelled: from reflections about their past, via doubts over whether - as four septuagenarians - they still have the same talent and energy that they used to, to a proclamation that a new spirit has arrived. The years have given them a confidence and a defiance: they’re looking out for one another, "like fighters in a ring", and they’re doing things their way. And if that means Frida and Agnetha expressing themselves in the environment where they always felt most at home - the recording studio - and avoiding all the stress and tedium of promotional appearances and live performances, then so be it. ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ is unashamed in its sentimentality, but if anyone has earned the right to give us five minutes of pure sentiment, then it’s ABBA.
If ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ is ABBA speaking to each other in wonderment that they’ve decided to get back on the carousel, the second song ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ is, at first glance, a less explicit manifesto and a more personal story. This time it’s Agnetha on lead vocal duties, and she utilises her unique interpretive ability to tell the story of a woman returning to a former lover and asking him to take her back. On the surface, this feels like a sequel to ABBA’s last big hit in the UK ‘One Of Us’, with the regretful protagonist from that song shaking herself from her lonely bed and assuring her ex that she’s changed, and that her ‘transformation’ won’t disappoint.
But boy, that Mr Ulvaeus is a clever man. My friend Rob messaged me to extol the brilliance of the lines "I believe it would be fair to say, you look bewildered", and asked if there are any other examples in ABBA’s oeuvre of the lyric switching from the third person (“It’s time at last to let him know”) to the second person (“You look bewildered"). I told him that I’m pretty sure this is the sole instance, and the boldness of that switch is kind of genius. In the time it takes for that insanely catchy, descending instrumental refrain to play out, Agnetha has charged up the stairs to the second floor apartment and is speaking not just to her ex, but to all of us, specifically ABBA fans. You never thought we’d come back, we told you numerous times we wouldn’t: when we left we felt we’d had enough, but, hey, we feel differently now! There’s something brilliantly audacious on Björn’s part about likening ABBA’s departure from the music scene to a ‘tantrum’ and then giving that line to Agnetha, who everyone always assumed was the one most resistant to any kind of reunion. As we move into the brilliantly hook-laden chorus, we hear these two beautiful women singing in perfect unison that they are ‘fired up’ and ‘hot’. Too bloody right they are! And given Agnetha frequently sang the role of the devastated ‘loser’ in ABBA’s break-up songs, it’s glorious to hear her so feisty and strong on this track.
As another friend of mine, Michael, concluded: “It’s an astonishing declaration of craft and confidence: ABBA are back. Hope you like us. But if you don’t, well - deal with it!”
On top of that, we have Björn sneaking in the odd reference to the avatar project: of ABBA being reloaded and decoded, as well as that sublime “I am not the one you knew: I am now and then combined.”
So we finally reach the outro, and I defy any ABBA fan not to feel emotional at being told:
“You asked me not to leave.
Well, here I am again.
And I love you still and so I won't pretend.”
The whole song ends on a cliffhanger both lyrically and musically, whichever interpretation you’re following: Agnetha/ABBA have set out their manifesto: so what happens next…?
It really brings home to me Björn’s under-appreciated talent as a lyricist, especially when you consider he’s not writing in his mother tongue. And the slightly gauche bathos of the reference to the "wooden bench" (reminiscent of the "building me a fence" line from his masterpiece ‘The Winner Takes It All’) just makes me adore it even more.
Benny was always the musical motor of ABBA, and he continues to be in both these songs. His talent for pure, perfect pop is unsurpassed in my opinion, and the clever way he recalls previous ABBA songs - particularly in ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ is just gorgeous. We have the piano glissando and trills from ‘Dancing Queen’, alongside the rhythm of ‘If It Wasn’t For The Nights’, combined with the laidback, chugging bass line recalling ‘Just Like That’. It’s all unmistakably ABBA as only Benny can produce. There’s been a multitude of ABBA wannabes over the years, but none of them can recreate that same aural perfection, and here we have it as it should be. A call back to the brilliance of their heyday without it ever feeling like pastiche or parody.
Benny and Björn have worked with numerous talented vocalists since ABBA pressed pause on their career back in 1983, but none of them possessed that magic that Frida and Agnetha bring to an Andersson/Ulvaeus composition. Never again did I expect to hear that astonishing chemistry when their two voices blend together, alongside the exquisite artistry when they sing solo. It’s there in Frida’s closing lines in ‘I Still Have Faith In You’. Her voice soars on the title line before descending to a bassy low note on the word ‘down’. You can practically see the tender smile flickering around her lips as she sings of the ‘crazy things’ they did for love. And it’s there in the little croak in Agnetha’s voice as she sings the final ‘now’ in ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’, with that particular skill she has to ‘cry’ with her voice when she sings a song. These two women touch my heart and my soul in a way that no other singer could even come close.
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet three of the members of ABBA over the years and clumsily attempted to express to them some of the gratitude I feel for how much they have enriched my life. Each of them has been utterly charming and self-deprecating: Björn remarking, upon being told that I’d been taken to see ABBA the Movie when I was four years old and cried because I didn’t want it to end, that I made him ‘feel very old’; Benny tolerantly posing for a photo with me and my parents; Agnetha listening patiently as I tried to cram four decades of adoration into our brief meeting, managing not to look too disturbed by the end of it, and even giving me a kiss on the cheek. (I didn't have the nerve to tell her about the woollen plaits...)
And now what? There’s the avatar show to look forward to, and a whole ALBUM of new music! I could ramble on and on and on, but for now, I think I should probably say hasta mañana. How to conclude? I could just say ‘Thank you for the music’ (which I’m embarrassed to admit I did actually say to Björn), but I think I’ll leave it to my Mum to have the final word. She posted this on ABBA’s Facebook page the evening the songs were unveiled:
Love you, Mum. Love you, ABBA. xx