Abba: Voyage review – no thank you for the music | Abba

The journey to Voyage, Abba’s final studio album and their first in 40 years, began with a tweet from their shiny new Twitter account in August, coaxing people to “join us”. Billboards across London followed, featuring images of a sort of solar eclipse, a glitter ball in a sci-fi silhouette. A week later came news of a 10-track album and a “digital avatar” concert residency in a custom-built London arena. The signs were good. Here was a band alive to their legacy as makers of sparkling pop, but also to the spirit of disco’s futurism, understanding that they had to harness the shock of the new.

The artwork for Voyage.
The artwork for Voyage. Photograph: AP

In September, one of two album taster tracks, Don’t Shut Me Down, fulfilled this brief exquisitely, morphing from vulnerable Swedish noir to piano-and-horn-propelled pop-funk. Its impact was unexpected and exciting and it became Abba’s first Top 10 hit since 1981, charging Voyage with the promise of forward motion and glamour – qualities that felt wildly attractive in our messy, mid-Covid times. And so it is hard to reckon with the disappointment that Abba’s ninth album delivers, as it prefers to languish in often bafflingly retrograde settings.

It begins with I Still Have Faith in You, the other taster track released in September. An epic example of the “bittersweet song” Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog refer to in the lyric – in their different, yet still lovely, older voices – its meditation on how to confront and own the ageing process is precision-tailored, in glistening silver thread. The opening, elegiac string phrase yearns for resolution throughout, before returning wistfully in the song’s final bars. The second verse’s soft drum rolls (by Per Lindvall, veteran of Super Trouper and The Visitors) are among many fine, musical details that urge the women on. It is, admittedly, a little cheesy, but its tenderness still feels triumphant.

But rather than reflecting poignantly on the past, much of the rest of Voyage feels terminally stuck there. When You Danced With Me tells the story of a girl left behind in Kilkenny when a boy she loved “left for the city”. She’s spent years waiting for him to return, we’re told; presumably she’s oblivious to the existence in Ireland of train routes, driving tests or text messages. The Celtic-leaning melody in the intro recalls Abba’s incursions into other global settings, such as the Mexican battlefields in Fernando, or the Spanish-Peruvian musical moodboards of Chiquitita. The overall effect doesn’t prompt folkloric nostalgia, but mild nausea.

Abba: I Still Have Faith in You – video

Then comes the album’s big crime against sense, sentimentality and sequencing, Little Things, a Christmas song shoved in at track three. All about the delights of the season, it includes a children’s choir singing about their grandma (the St Winifred’s school singers would sound like rebel punks in comparison), but also, in a jolting juxtaposition, intimations about mum and dad’s sex life. Particularly weird is the implication of a grim transactional quality behind a romantic gesture. “You’d consider bringing me a breakfast tray, but there’s a price,” Lyngstad sings, having noticed her partner’s “naughty eyes”. You hope if she’s presented with a breakfast sausage, she’ll impale it then bin it.

Admittedly, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson have never been the most enlightened lyricists on the feminism front. One of Us and Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) are two Abba songs among many featuring a fraught woman desperate for any man to pop along and quick-fix her loneliness. Now four decades have passed, and one can’t help but despair at the chorus of I Can Be That Woman (“You’re not the man you should’ve been / I let you down somehow”) and that’s after its terrible lyrical twist about a female her husband is sleeping with, who turns out to be … a dog. Keep an Eye on Dan offers another miserable monologue from a pining divorcee, spoiling its fantastic mixture of Visitors-era iciness and Voulez-Vous-era disco propulsion.

Ulvaeus recently said these songs were written “absolutely trend-blind”. It shows. Including tracks such as the rejected 1978 single Just a Notion (a reminder of early, jangly Abba glam, but nothing more) and Bumblebee (a naive attempt to say something universal about climate change) makes you doubt their quality control. At least Voyage’s finale, Ode to Freedom, hints at a grand, closing statement, pastiching and stretching a phrase from a waltz in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But then its lyric talks about the futility of writing an ode that’s worth remembering, which leaves an odd note, especially when we’re talking about a band whose songs are known around the world.

“If I ever write my ode to freedom / It will be in prose that chimes with me,” it concludes. Maybe it’s a reference to the female members’ preference for privacy, or even Abba’s determination to keep creating their unusual song structures in their Swedish reading of English – but it also suggests Abba feel they can exist in their own bubble. They can’t. In the past, they excelled when they twisted the sounds of their times in their own way, when they were within glam, disco and electronic pop but also apart from these genres; when their idiosyncrasies elevated them, rather than diminished them. If only they had stopped at those two knowing songs, leaving the rest to our dazzling imaginations.