ABBA IN THE 21st CENTURY (2021): On a voyage to nowhere

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ABBA IN THE 21st CENTURY (2021): On a voyage to nowhere

In the Abba museum in Stockholm, visitors can experience a disconcerting Dorian Gray moment. Here you stare into the twinkling eyes of the band who stand, life-size, as mute as wax and preserved just as they were at the height of their fame four decades ago.

In a flip to the other side of Oscar Wilde's mirror we imagine the lustrous but reclusive Agnetha – now 71, blond hair flecked with grey – walking the empty corridors of her stylishly Scandinavian palace, as lonely as the moon.

Elsewhere in the impressive museum – the “cathedral to the demi-gods of Swedish pop” according to one city guide – are glass cases of awards so numerous as to give Elvis' Graceland a run for its money, you can pose in a helicopter to replicate their Arrival album cover, dance along with digitally generated avatars of the band or mix your own version of some of their numerous hits.

It's Abba live again.

Almost.

abba_copyIf the two women – Anni-Frid and Agnetha – quietly faded from view after Abba retired from active duty in '81 – the Abba boys Bjorn and Benny carried on with greater or lesser degrees of success as writers and performers in musicals and theatre.

No matter how acclaimed this work was however (and some of it wasn't), the long shaft of light that was Abba would always illuminate them.

Abba's songs have never gone away, kept alive by reissues (CDs not around when they quit), tribute bands, cover versions, documentaries, the Mama Mia! films (and others which featured their songs), the museum, gay clubs and, of course, the millions of mainstream fans.

Yet Abba's music, despite the detergent-polish and sometimes joyful surfaces, was occasionally dark: their songs could be cynical (Money Money Money, The Winner Takes It All) and about emotional pain (SOS, once given an appropriately primal scream treatment by Chris Knox).

Even the Dancing Queen was emotionally hollow at her centre.

The Visitors from 81 -- their final gasp and, taken as a whole, their most interesting album -- was the separation album. Not quite of Stevie-Lindsey/Fleetwood Mac dimensions but many songs certainly loaded with meaning.

That Abba have a new album Voyage is cause for considerable excitement, but the music world has changed.

ABBA___VoyageWhile the film industry expects a bump in cinema attendances in the wake of a Bond or Marvel release, music in the age of streaming is different.

Abba's album – and Adele's long-awaited 30 – won't see any trickle-down to other music.

These artists live in a self-contained -- almost museum-like -- world, isolated from the main threads of popular culture dominated by R'n'B and rap artists.

The two advanced Voyage singles I Still Have Faith in You and Don't Shut Me Down weren't promising: the former an over-orchestrated, five minute-plus MOR showtune – which opens the album on a downer – and the latter mid-tempo, personality-free and emotionally flat Europop.

Nothing there for dancing queens.

Among the eight other songs on Voyage there are a few which show some signs of life, but the Celtic-influenced When You Danced With Me isn't (despite the title) one of them and seems an extremely long two minutes and 50 seconds.

Nor is the Christmas-themed and sentimental Little Things (one for saccharine mums and dads to sing as a lullaby for weary wee ones after the presents have been opened). It's awful.

Nice to hear a bit of the Seventies glam rock beat given a reheat on Just a Notion; musically Keep An Eye on Dan is certainly Abba-by-numbers with a prominent synth part and a lyric about a separated couple with mum leaving the boy with his dad.

You want to dance to Abba? No Doubt About It is your sole go-to song here.

But crikey it's wordy: “Bending like a willow when a storm is brewing. Oh yeah, that’s you. But, hey, I take the rap. This one’s my mishap and there’s no doubt about it. He tells me that he won’t take the bait, that I have a tendency to exaggerate and maybe he’s right, but that is beside the point. Well, then why do I let it upset me? Yes, and why am I biting my nails? I made a mess this time and there’s no doubt about it . . .”

What is clear is that writers now take themselves Very Seriously Indeed and are both time-locked and genre-bound (theatre): I Can Be That Woman is yet another over-egged ballad from a lost musical (featuring a cat with a reproachful expression and dog that jumps every time the angry lover swears).

We'll quote the lyrics for Free As a Bumblebee, another maudlin mid-tempo ballad with a smidgen of Celtic influence:

I'm down and I feel depressed
Sitting here just waiting
For next bus travelling
Downtown
It's a crying shame
Isn't it
The beautiful weather
If I could have my way
Well, I would not be working
On a day like this I know what I'd like to be
As free as a bumble bee
Take a sip from
Every flower
Free as a bumble bee
While away each lazy hour
What a good life
Lying laid back
Like an old railroad bum by the track
What a good life
Living outdoors
Lie in the grass and chew on a straw

1312331Abba are irrelevant in contemporary music and you can't help feel that former fans expecting a scattering of humour or a couple of dancefloor fillers will react with bitter disappointment by this very earnest outing.

It is utterly lame. 

When they play these songs on the tour where avatars are their stand-ins there will be a rush to the bar.

And I wouldn't trust a band with an orchestral, quasi-choral song entitled Ode to Freedom, which is also utterly self-defeating: “That’s why there is no Ode to Freedom truly worth remembering”

True dat.

Abba and this album are museum-pieces.

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