WHY RE-FORMED ABBA IS NOT JUST A NOSTALGIA ACT
It’s an obvious truism that the real test of any kind of art is not if it is popular as the flavour of the season but if it lasts, and resonates years after it first came into being. This is where all those currently mocking Abba’s comeback spectacularly miss the point.
Abba’s stature in world music became evident a few days ago from the rapturous worldwide reaction to their two new songs in forty years. Though it could have also been estimated from the one billion dollar offer they got less than a decade ago, to reunite in their sixties and do 100 concerts in one year, which they had refused.
More than anything, Abba’s true place in history comes from the scarcely believable longevity their music has had, and clearly will continue to have. They are very emphatically not just a nostalgia act but transcend generations (as an Australian made the observation that no other music has resulted in a grandmother, her daughter and her granddaughter singing along with the same gusto to the same song during a car drive.)
Even the band did not really expect this. In 1982, when they split up after a decade of existing, and seven years of conquering the world, they expected their music to fade away within a year or two. It was an enormously creative period in music after all, with all kinds of genres exploding with high quality music, and Abba’s amiable songs, ostensibly lacking any kind of ‘edge”, seemed likely to be blown away. Sure enough, that did happen for about a decade. But then, in 1992, suddenly a re-compiled greatest hits compilation went straight to the stratosphere. Shortly after that, the enormous success of films like Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, that used Abba’s music copiously, saw the kind of revival barely any artist in popular music has ever had. The Mama Mia stage musical/s and film/s continued that ascent, and fans of all ages, genders and orientations continued to join the new bandwagon. Today, Abba is bigger than they’ve ever been — the biggest band in music history, just after the Beatles.
What is it about their music that has lasted so emphatically? Why have those songs remained such earworms decades after coming into being? What accounts for their universality, across geography, cultural conditioning and age? It is clearly much more than their irresistible catchiness, as there have been thousands of songs, bigger hits than even Abba’s during their time, that have not been even to travel through time this well. It is actually not a coincidence that Abba’s rise happened during the most creative phase in the history of music. The music that inspired them beyond Nordic folk music, which was their foundation, came from America and the UK, of a standard that has never been matched. Besides the quality of inspiration, it was also an age of ascending authenticity, and that played a huge part in all that awakened creativity being assimilated within their own, distinct voice.
All four of them were experienced artists when they came together (as two couples who were friends, not as a band) and their musical bar was higher than perhaps even they realised. So much of what happened was impossible to imagine before it did — the creative energy of the two songwriters — Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (manager Stig Anderson also contributed lyrics) and the two singers — Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the astonishing “third voice” that resulted when the two female vocalists sang together and the seemingly effortlessly-constructed elegant melodies that fit so seamlessly with the musical ethos of the time
But the real preservative in their music, the main reason why so much of their music has endured, perhaps lies in the innate melancholy in a lot of their songs, even when they were ostensibly joyful — band-member/ pianist Benny Anderson once acknowledged a cultural Scandinavian depression arising from six months of snow and two months of darkness. It wasn’t just the contrast between downbeat lyrics and a joyous melody but musically too, as if an opposite emotion often inhabited the song as well. Listening to even their two catchiest monster hits — “SOS” (1975) or even “Dancing Queen” (1976) with this perspective can be interesting. The latter, one of the most loved songs ever, seems a perfect union of the influences of the time (there’s even a lyrical reference each to Dylan and The Beatles in it, the last quite prominent) and their top-class musicianship — that piano lick, the bassline and the joyous harmonies. Regardless of the visual packaging around these tracks (often a red herring) and even the aural flourishes in keeping with the sensibility of their time, in their essence, these are absolutely timeless tunes.
The reverse was equally true — the refined zip in their overtly sad songs was as magical. For example, the two ostensibly autobiographical break-up songs of the two couples — the classic “The Winner Takes It All” (1980) and the relatively underrated masterpiece “When All Is Said And Done” (1981). Tonally, this latter song is perhaps the clearest view in their entire body of work into the quintessential Abba soul — avoiding sentimentality through the aching sadness with a beautiful detached grace, expressed with an almost ethereal sense of fun.
This old soul vibe gave a unique character to many of Abba’s songs that resulted in perhaps the greatest body of bittersweet songs from any single entity in musical history. As the lyricist of Grateful Dead Robert Hunter once said (in the context of the Dead’s 1970 twin albums, both classics today) — “There’s no emotion more appealing than the bittersweet when it’s truly, truly spoken.” That bittersweet quality in Abba’s music, not immediately noticeable through the ostensible sweetness and perk, perhaps provided both — an easy accessibility and a depth that have made the songs resonate over time. Since sadness and wistfulness are a part of both nostalgia and the bittersweet, their songs do accomplish that quite easily. For new listeners, it can actually go much beyond.
But at that time, being clubbed with the likes of Boney M, Donna Summer, Kraftwerk and Olivia Newton-John did not help in taking Abba’s music more seriously, or make people even listen more closely. Meanwhile, the media, given its propensity to be left-of-centre internationally, often considerably, treated them more as a glamorous flavour of the season of very slight cultural significance. Since the Left loves misery and congenitally hates commercial gain, Abba’s music, with its ostensibly joyous vibe and enormous commercial appeal, was never likely to be taken more seriously by them anyway (as many interviews from that time also suggest).
Then there are some who bring up prosaic lyrics as a reason to mock Abba. Besides being a fundamentally ignorant crib for bringing up lyrics in the context of music at all (as this is not the medium for verbal poetry), that is also a misreading. Their lyrics actually accentuated the clear-eyed directness that defined their musical ethos, and they did it superbly. In fact, very few give them credit for being among the first mainstream pop artists to write about middle-aged mature issues in the latter part of their career. It was all a part of being unpretentious and rooted, “ordinary” in an everyday sense, with highly relatable lives themselves. It is also useful to remember that English was not their first language and if you are the type, you may find grammatical errors in some of their songs (which makes precisely zero difference to the enjoyment or legacy of the songs).
During a time of enormous creativity and experimentation musically in popular music, there was a quiet sense of security to Abba, who did not once set out to rebel fashionably against the status quo to be cool, get into drug-fuelled explorations, or try to be a musical entity they were not. But there was a clear attempt to grow artistically themselves, in their quest to capture the human condition in their way, with a focus and integrity that showed in their work.
For example, like the Beatles, they got better and more ambitious with each new album, peaking much like The Beatles with their last album too — The Visitors, a masterpiece for sheer variety, thematic ambition and exquisite melody. The last Abba song recorded before they split up (an outtake from The Visitors) was actually one of their finest tracks and promised much (and would have perhaps been a perfect Track 2 on the album itself).
Abba did 8 studio albums in about a decade, roughly the same timespan as The Beatles, who did 12 albums in their decade. Abba’s number of 98 original songs was a little less than half of what The Beatles did, so interestingly, given the number of Abba songs that have survived after 40 years, the proportion of quality songs within their body of work is higher than even The Beatles, and more than anyone else with that span of work. Unlike the Beatles though, the true quality and worth of Abba’s songs is much clearer now, than it was then. And there’s little doubt that Abba’s finest songs will last as long as the finest Beatles songs will.
Beyond the sweetness and liveliness, the latent beauty in Abba’s music that has resonated over the years, across age-groups, might also have something to do with electronica being so big in recent times as well, and our ears having got used to it. With the role of quality melody in standing out during an era of information overload and overstimulation, Abba’s clear-eyed strengths are perhaps even more apparent now. Given the universality and timelessness melody has, it is not far-fetched to imagine Abba as a new band in 2020, starting out within the musical idioms of this time, standing out exactly as before. With a neat division of gender in the band, they might have been perfect role models too (even though there would be some who would find the idea of two women dancing to two men’s tunes problematic and besides, songs like this and this would probably get cancelled).
Then, of course, there are those who dismiss Abba’s music for not being edgy — here is a list of artists that even a cursory search reveals were their fans or musically influenced by them, because they actually spoke about it. Disbelief trigger warning for the fragile — Pete Townshend (The Who), Glen Matlock (The Sex Pistols), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Elvis Costello, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (Blondie), Mike Oldfield, Madonna, Metallica, Freddie Mercury and Brian May (Queen), Mike Love (The Beach Boys) and Cher, just for starters. In 1992, U2, the world’s biggest band then, invited two members of Abba (then separated) on stage to perform “Dancing Queen” with them. “Edgy” enough artists?
Abba’s music wasn’t edgy, as most people are not, or would like not to be. But it had a broader and deeper resonance, expressed through the popular music idioms of its time, that sounds surprisingly timeless, despite some of those sounds seeming dated now. Again, it wasn’t clear then, but the fact is that no one has come close to replicating their melodic and musical quality even after forty years, let alone that consistency. And what has this whole business of “edgy” done to the Arts anyway? It can be argued that the age of irony, sarcasm and cynicism gradually dismantled a sense of wonder from the popular space — sincerity, and even joy or happiness became singularly uncool, especially in popular music. Its enormous loss is evident from the manner in which vitality was gradually sucked out from popular culture and the crystal-clear decline of imagination in this century, and the rise of depression and gloom to such an extent that we often struggle to find titles on Netflix that are not dark or gory.
In the context of all of this, with an average age of 74, Abba reunited after 40 years, and released two new songs from their forthcoming new album. The songs were actually recorded in 2017 when they came together but the release got delayed due to the pandemic as well later. (So, these two added to their 98 before, completes a century of Abba songs.)
Both songs instantly and magically recapture that absolutely unique sound, that bittersweet instantly relatable. Much like Leonard Cohen (who sounded 70 even when he was 35), the quintessential old soul sensibility of Abba’s suggests that their new music will not sound out-of-place in all probability, regardless of what musical clothes it wears. It’ll be interesting to see to what extent they make that count.
The first new song, a ballad that appears to have the band-members lyrically reassuring each other that they are still relevant — the deceptive musical simplicity once again, camouflaging that magically effortless ability to become an earworm.
The latter part of the video also provides a glimpse into their ambitious shows planned in London from May 2022, in collaboration with George Lucas’ studio, where 160 cameras and motion picture costumes have created digital versions of theirs, de-aged to their prime of 1979. The singing will be pre-recorded — new recordings of the hits, not the original recordings, along with the new songs, which will be performed by the avatars (though there was a suggestion that musicians would be playing live). It’ll be a revolutionary time machine musical journey, and could well provide a glimpse to the future.
The second song is ostensibly to their massive community of fans, both old and new. Instantly recognisable, utterly unique sound. The hundredth Abba song to be officially released.
No entity in the history of music ever made a comeback after forty years. If John Lennon had lived, in all probability, The Beatles would have come together latest by the early-1990s — that’s a 20-year gap. The exact same gap Pink Floyd had between their fourteenth and fifteenth albums (in 2014). The Who, with a gap of 24 years between their tenth and eleventh albums (in 2006) probably held that record before Abba re-formed.
Here’s a selective bird’s-eye view of that Abba period for nostalgic or educative purposes, or just sheer enjoyment.
1972 — the first time they appeared as a band — a song that didn’t cause a sensation then, but would make its way into compilations later consistently.
In 1973, with the first song that moved the needle — a hit in Germanic Europe (suggesting a “boundary of taste”) that also very modestly tried to recreate Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. In 1974, the song that won them the Eurovision contest, interestingly an event each individual band-member had been trying to make a mark in for six years in different capacities; this win actually brought the Eurovision contest international recognition! (Till date, they’re the only winners who achieved world fame, except Celine Dion in 1988, who only performed, was not a songwriter). That same year, when the “third voice” got established, an amalgam of the two singers’ vocals. A tribute to bandleader Billy Vaughn in 1975. Divorce blues (much before it happened to them) as their songs explored adult themes, in 1976.
Using polyphonic synthesisers in their music for the first time. Producing some of the most loved duets in popular music. Musical theatre style songs of different hues. Smash worldwide hit, about two revolutionaries reminiscing about a fight for freedom.
In 1977, a stunning departure from their sound with a song inspired by Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. This famous song as a climax to the most-viewed music film at the time Abba-the Movie from 1977, which began life as a Doris Day tribute (it also featured when Abba performed in the studio for the very last time in 1982). Jogging sounds influencing this fun song, another massive worldwide hit.
A complex melody with six different sections (influences from Stevie Wonder, Boston and “Penny Lane” by The Beatles, neatly assimilated into their own 1977 expression). Their own distinctive take on rock and roll. And on disco. And again, more famously. A hymn, very distinctly — with a Biddu-esque electric sitar intro. Disco again, but a distinctly European brand with downbeat lyrics about a marriage ending (as was happening with Agnetha and Bjorn then) — they must have enjoyed the perverseness of people dancing to themes of such gloom. A smash piano hit in English and Spanish, the title meaning “little girl”, the song originally donated to UNICEF. A straight tribute to one of their favourite peers — the Bee Gees. Saying goodbye to disco and hello to synth pop in 1979, with an instrumental refrain famously sampled by Madonna a few years later.
As described by a writer, fellow-Swede’s Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage” set to Abba’s distinctive pop — one of their greatest songs, cannibalising from their own lives. Universally popular party and wedding song, with “blue” in the second line as a refrain, with “lonely” to follow.
A song essentially about global peace, that comes up at every single year-end, quintessentially personalised. In that same vein, their most political song in their last album, but with a compassion uniquely theirs. Heralding eighties dance music, with a quintessentially recognisable Abba chorus.
One of the most memorable odes to parenthood in popular music, written and sung by Bjorn and Agnetha respectively (after they’d split up) for their little daughter who had just started going to school - a mother’s regret about her daughter growing up so soon and going to school, before she’s spent enough time with her. This last song on their last album started life as a lullaby that progressed to an aching requiem — their swan song on record (“love was one prolonged goodbye”).
And finally, this, written especially as the final encore for their shows, anchored by the accordion — Benny Andersson’s favourite instrument.
Despite all the attention Abba got in their prime for peripheral things like glamour and their costumes, it was always about the music for them more than anything else. And that is what they are most loved for, by a huge distance. This second wind has removed any doubts about that at least. In a world that is perhaps more ready for them now, than it was then.