It was 1982 when ABBA put their career on hold.
That was a year when Ronald Regan was US president, Malcolm Fraser was prime minister of Australia, the Falklands War raged, ET dominated cinemas, Michael Jackson’s Thriller arrived in stores alongside the first CDs, the Princess of Wales birthed the future King William and TIME magazine voted the computer as its Man of the Year.
So, it’s timely that ABBA – the most successful pop group of all time – has returned to whisk us back from the plague years to simpler times with a new album, Voyager.
I Still Have Faith In You and Don’t Shut Me Down, the quartet’s first new songs in thirty-nine years are shamelessly nostalgic tracks about the satisfactions and great joys of lasting friendships.
They’re songs that reignite the classic ABBA melodies and reframe them in a context that makes sense to the millions of Baby Boomer and Gen-X ABBA fans.
“We’re not competing with Drake and all these other guys,” pianist Benny Andersson told a media conference in London early Friday Australian time.
“I can’t do that because I don’t understand what’s out there. I don’t understand what the ingredients in the songs that work today are, so it’s impossible to emulate,” he said.
ABBA have always stood a little outside the pack however.
Sweden was a pop backwater when, in 1972, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson teamed up with Agnetha Fältskog, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad.
Waterloo was the breakthrough single and for a decade ABBA dominated the pop charts with exquisitely layered production of glistening keyboards and overdubbed vocals.
The key to success was the tendency to match aching, melancholy lyrics with playful melodies and hooks as contagious as Delta.
The world needed ABBA
Some 400 million records sold in nine years, breaking all manner of chart records. ABBA were fun for all the family. Once they retired there was the musical and two hit films. It was as though the world needed ABBA.
Andersson, is being disingenuous about his currency. He doesn’t have to follow trends. They are still following him. His protege, Max Martin, is the producer who defined modern pop in the 21st century.
That influence is heard through Taylor Swift, Robyn, Backstreet Boys, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Ke$ha, Usher, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Icona Pop and other chart champions who scored many of their most beloved hits while working with Martin and/or other Swedish associates like Andreas Carlsson, Rami, Shellback and Klas Åhlunn.
All of these acts and producers retrace ABBA’s templates.
According to Barry Walter of America’s National Public radio: “When it comes to pop, ABBA have been – for the last several decades – far more influential than The Beatles.
“ABBA concealed the distress of their ditties with as many deliciously gaudy overdubs as the era’s analog recording techniques could muster. Embedded in some of the brightest whiteness pop has ever known, ABBA invented their own blues, one that hasn’t left the radio. They whispered private anguish in the midst of the party.”
The newly-released recordings grew out of a project which began in 2016 to create a virtual concert to be staged in a purpose-built theatre in London.
Digital versions of ABBA with an orchestra and band will perform greatest hits and new songs. Two songs eventually became ten and an album, Voyager, will be out for Christmas.
The story of the two couples, their marriages and divorces, was enmeshed into the ABBA myth, much like Fleetwood Mac’s story.
The new material naturally feeds into the narrative – I Still Have Faith In You about love and friendship healing wounds between lovers and friends. It’s a common middle-aged narrative as they sing: “Through joy and the sorrow, we have a story and it survived.”
“When Benny played the melody, I just knew it had to be about us,” Ulvaeus said.
The greatest challenge in show business is to know when to leave the stage. No-one really wants the pin-ups of their teenage years to age.
That’s why the band have turned down multi-million dollar reunion offers in the past. It’s fortunate that ABBA have waited until they could reappear still very much as their mythological selves, defying the ravages of time that we have suffered.
However, to keep the myth alive, the digital performers look like their younger selves – the way we remember them and all the better to remember ourselves.
“It’s about realising that it’s inconceivable to be where we are,” says Andersson of the Voyager project.
“No imagination could dream up that, to release an album after 40 years and still be the best of friends, and still be enjoying each other’s company, and have a total loyalty,” he added.
Maybe that’s the message the planet needs on this current unknown voyage we’re on.
Toby Creswell is a music journalist and pop-culture writer, as well as a former editor of Rolling Stone (Australia) and founding editor of Juice.