Abba’s new songs reviewed: a perky, moving return to pop’s highest peaks
It is so powerful to hear Agnetha and Anni-Frid singing I Still Have Faith In You together after 40 years – and the slinky, cheeky Don’t Shut Me Down is even better
Abba Voyage is probably just going to be a cruise, I thought. Only in my dreams did I think it would be a new song. Then at 6pm came the news: a whole new album, with two tracks released at once to herald its arrival.
Heralding this pop miracle are I Still Have Faith In You (★★★★) and Don’t Shut Me Down (★★★★★), two songs precision-honed to wallop emotion out of the listener (if you’re willing, that is: if you’ve always been immune to Abba’s charms, these songs won’t melt your cold heart). I’ve been an Abba fan since I was a little girl, and the opening strings on the former, full of minor-key melancholy, had me welling up immediately, pointing as they do to a classic Abba trope. Here’s a melody that feels like it’s already in its middle – leaving the listener lost, rooting around for something to console them – before it moves, with exquisite deliberation, towards the first verse (Dancing Queen also does this brilliantly).
And so it is that nine seconds in, Agnetha Fältskog starts to sing. “I still have faith in you / I see it now.” The word “still” feels dropped into the title phrase almost casually, but it contains oceans of meaning, the hint of a past experience still colouring the present: another classic Abba move. Their songs often crackle with the uncomfortable edges of their biography, especially later on in their careers (The Winner Takes It All, sung by Agnetha, being the majestic zenith of all this; one does sometimes wonder how the women feel about having these words written for them). Then Anni-Frid appears, singing alone, before harmonising with Agnetha – to hear these two women singing together again after 40 years is incredibly moving.
The sound of these voices together has always been one of the greatest things in pop, creating a sound that’s almost impossibly bright but also tender and delicate. It transforms gushy ballads, folk excursions and pearlescent disco bangers into profound statements. It’s what turns ordinary cheese into an artisanal award-winner.
Naturally, these voices have changed and aged, but they still carry the weight of each phrase deftly, unshowily, which deepens their impact. When they sing “do I have it in me?”, they almost sound perky and inquisitive. Then the emotion returns: “For I know I hear a bittersweet song / In the memories we share.” Coldplay or Take That couldn’t get away with this, but Abba can.
I Still Have Faith In You continues in this vein for five minutes: in its style, it’s an older cousin of Thank You For the Music, a song first used in the band’s 1977 mini-musical, The Girl With the Golden Hair. Don’t Shut Me Down begins in a similar musical mood, but it tells a story, a little like The Day Before You Came: Anni-Frid being a woman sitting on a bench, in the rain, waiting to go round and tell an old lover she won’t be the “same this time around”. And then 38 seconds in, the mood shifts with a fantastic downward piano run: the song suddenly becomes loose-limbed and breathlessly excitable. “I think it would be fair to say / You look bewildered,” she sings. We are, but happily so. Pop ABBA are back.
This is the even-better of the pair, hinting back at Abba’s past with a cannier slink in its step. A reference to “children’s laughter” has echoes of rooms where “children used to play” in Knowing Me, Knowing You; synth-horns recall The Visitors; the chord progressions evoke the Super Trouper era. The way you can extrapolate the story to Abba’s return is great too, nicely full of cheek. “You asked me not to leave,” they say. “Well, here I am again.” I can’t wait for more of this in November.