One of the most anticipated comebacks in pop culture has finally come to pass: the return of Abba.
Forty years after the bitter songs written in the wake of two band divorces for their last album, 1981’s The Visitors, the Swedish pop quartet has reunited for Voyage, an album of brand new songs that will be released on 5 November – including, they say, a Christmas song. Two tracks from it, the stately and epic ballad I Still Have Faith in You and the shimmying Don’t Shut Me Down, are out now.
The group – Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Björn Ulvaeus – have also announced a new concert experience in London, also called Voyage, beginning in May 2022. Digital versions of themselves (not holograms, their team asserted) will appear nightly alongside a 10-piece live band at a new 3,000-capacity venue in the city’s Olympic park, called the Abba Arena. Tickets go on general sale on Tuesday 7 September.
Lyngstad said of their reunion: “Such joy it was to work with the group again – I am so happy with what we have made,” and called Andersson and Ulvaeus “exceptionally talented, truly genius songwriters”.
Ulvaeus said of Fältskog and Lyngstad: “I was completely floored by the way they delivered those songs,” with Andersson saying: “I think hearing Frida and Agnetha singing again is hard to beat.”
Andersson added: “We’re truly sailing in uncharted waters. With the help of our younger selves, we travel into the future.”
Abba’s digital avatars were created using motion capture technology, similar to that used by Andy Serkis and others to portray CGI beasts in Hollywood movies: the group was filmed in skintight suits for the lifelike recreations. Wayne McGregor, resident artist at London’s Royal Ballet, choreographed the band’s performance, and an 850-strong team from George Lucas-founded effects company Industrial Light & Magic designed and animated the de-aged avatars from the footage.
McGregor said: “Imagine: growing up in the north of England in the 70s and learning to ballroom, Latin and disco dance to the incredible songs of Abba. I was eight and I was totally transported. Fast forward to 2020, being in Sweden and dancing with Abba – in real life! I was about to be 50 and I was totally transported again. That is the magic of Abba.” He promised “technological wizardry, state of the art immersion and entertainment innovation. And still at its searing heart we simply have new songs, new moves, classic songs, classic moves.”
The footage is directed by film-maker Baillie Walsh, and produced by Johan Renck – best known as the Emmy-winning director of TV miniseries Chernobyl – and Svana Gisla, who worked with Renck on videos for David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. Also on the creative team is Benny Andersson’s film producer son, Ludwig.
Both the concert and album have been mooted for some time. The avatar concept – or “Abbatars” as Ulvaeus has called them – was announced in 2016 by music manager Simon Fuller (who is not involved with the 2022 iteration). In 2017, Andersson elaborated on the project, saying: “It will take a bit of time, it takes time to digitalise a face. It’s fun that it’s so technologically advanced.” In 2018, a TV show featuring the avatars was announced, co-produced by the BBC and NBC, which has not yet been aired.
The group also announced that meeting up for the project had “an unexpected consequence. We all felt that, after some 35 years, it could be fun to join forces again and go into the recording studio. So we did. And it was like time had stood still and we had only been away on a short holiday. An extremely joyful experience!”
Two songs were initially written and recorded, including I Still Have Faith in You, but their release was pushed back to early 2019, then late 2019, but never emerged. Since then the group have continued writing and recording, eventually ending up with a full album of material.
In the interim, their pop cultural heft has continued to grow. The stage musical Mamma Mia!, debuted in 1999, and recently reopened in London’s West End, reintroduced the group’s hits to new generations. A 2008 film version made more than £440m in global box office takings and is an enduring family favourite: it is the UK’s biggest-selling DVD ever. A 2018 sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, made £285m globally.
Their ongoing popularity has meant that their 1992 greatest hits collection, Abba Gold, is the longest-running album in the UK album chart. In July, it became the first to surpass 1,000 weeks there, and is currently sitting at No 14.
Long before the musical and movies, however, their song catalogue was already one of the most successful – and brilliant – in all pop music. Having formed in 1972, at the height of their fame in the mid-1970s six out of seven singles in a row reached No 1 in the UK: Fernando, Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen, Knowing Me Knowing You, Name of the Game and Take a Chance on Me. They had three further No 1s and a total of 19 Top 10 hits.
The reunion also brings two pairs of once-married couples back together. Lyngstad and Andersson were engaged in 1971, the same year that Fältskog and Ulvaeus married, but by 1981, both couples had divorced within a year of each other. Their romantic strife was explored with great candour in songs such as The Winner Takes It All, and in the psychodramas of their final album in 1981.
The group fizzled out in 1983 without an official breakup announcement. In the years since, Fältskog released 12 solo albums, most recently A in 2013; Lyngstad released three albums and made occasional one-off recordings.
Andersson and Ulvaeus co-wrote numerous musicals, including Chess with Tim Rice, and in 2013 they worked with EDM producer Avicii to compose the theme for the Eurovision Song Contest, which they had won with Waterloo in 1974.
The group have long denied they would ever perform live again. In 2014, Lyngstad said: “We only have one answer and that is no … No amount of money would change our minds. Maybe we sometimes say it would be good to do a song together again, just a recording and nothing else.”
In 2016, they did perform one song together at a party to celebrate 50 years of the Andersson-Ulvaeus songwriting partnership: The Way Old Friends Do.
Speaking at a London launch event for Voyage, Ulvaeus said the band was as close as they ever were. “It is incredible to be where we are, no imagination could dream up that. To release a new album after 40 years and to still be the best of friends … to still have a total loyalty. Who has experienced that? Nobody … It is such fun and we have been longing for this for such a long time.”
Why do the project now? “We wanted to do it before we were dead,” he said.
Andersson, also appearing, said the worst of the filming was when they had to shave their beards. “I’ve had mine 50 years.”
Ulvaeus said they chose London to host their live show because “London is the best city to be in when it comes to entertainment, theatre, musicals … We have always felt that the Brits see us as their own.”
Asked what the best thing about being in Abba is, Andersson replied, with refreshing candour: “Not having to worry about the money. You are free to do anything, to keep on writing the music.”