The miracle is that they don’t sound any different. Frida will be 76 in November and Agnetha turned 71 in April but their voices, especially when they sing together, sound exactly the same as they did during the seventies, as does, bar a bit of 21st Century upgrade, the musical backdrop of keyboards, synthesised strings, tuned drums and occasional electric guitar. More importantly, they still don’t sound like anyone else; nor, for that matter, has anyone else been able to sound like them since Abba disbanded 40 years ago.
The YouTube video for Abba’s new and characteristically epic ballad ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ has, as of an hour ago, had over four and a half million views since it appeared on the internet last night. The video for their other new song, ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’, while slightly less impressive, has had over one and a half million. That’s all occurred in the first 24 hours since they were made available.
Packed with the sweeping surges of emotion and traces of autobiography that was the hallmark of all their best work, ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ opens with a few grand notes that put me in mind of Elgar’s patriotic works before one of the girls, in this case Frida, sings solo. There’s an unmistakable delicacy, even hesitancy, to her voice, as if the words conjure up a well of sentiment she finds difficult to express or, even now, it’s still a challenge for her to sing in the English language. On the third line – ‘There was a union’ – Agnetha unsurprisingly joins in, before Frida closes the verse: ‘Of heart and mind, the likes of which are, oh so hard to find.’ Thereafter, although Frida leads, they are regularly reunited in that familiar choral landscape only Abba could produce.
We’re less than a minute into the song and it is unmistakably Abba, gloriously melodic, chiming and poignant. Are they singing about themselves? Is the ‘bittersweet song’ they mention one of their melancholy old hits? Are the ‘memories we share’ a commemoration of their marriages, or of the group, or the long history of the relationships that Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Frida have shared? Of course, lyricist Björn will never confirm this – the best songs are always enigmatic – but in this way ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ perfectly recreates the magic of Abba, that none too subtle blend of reality and fantasy, all folded neatly into a bravura performance that was, is and remains an inimitable Abba trait.
The song lasts just over five minutes and gradually gathers momentum, ebbing and flowing in much the same way as ‘Our Last Summer’, ‘Slipping Though My Fingers’ and ‘Winner Takes It All’, all of which share a similarity in tempo and sentiment. As it progresses, footage from Abba – The Movie, the Abba In Concert DVD and individual song videos are shown, cleverly edited at various points to suggest they are actually performing the new song. It follows a chronological sequence, from pre-Abba to The Visitors, and there’s a nod to their massive popularity in Australia with shots of the huge crowds that gathered to greet them in Melbourne.
At the 3.45 mark, theatrically accompanied by background audience cheers, we leave the familiar footage and are introduced to the much-heralded four digital Abba avatars, on stage as they soar into the uplifting final chorus of ‘I Still Have Faith In You’, this time with a underlying vocal counterpoint that blends chorus and verse, a crescendo that closes – again like other Abba epics – with the backing track dropping away for one of the girls, again Frida here, to bring it all back to where it began by soloing on a final line or two.
Less dramatic, but still unmistakably Abba, ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ features Agnetha singing an extended prologue before the song kicks in, lively, danceable and cheery even though Agnetha has clearly had her fragile heart broken yet again. Nowadays, though, she can cope – ‘I’m not the one you knew’ – for which we can all be thankful. This is pop Abba in the manner of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, ‘Mama Mia’ and ‘Take A Chance On Me’, complete with Benny’s tinkly piano and a ‘Dancing Queen’-style sliding glissando across the keys, a snappy snare and Björn, quirky as ever, rhyming ‘frustration’ with ‘transformation’. Unfortunately, the video features the lyrics only.
These two tracks are a taster for a new Abba album called ABBA: The Voyage which will be released in November. In May 2022 a series of Abba concerts featuring the avatars – or ‘Abbatars’ as Björn calls them – are scheduled for London’s Olympic Park which will be renamed the Abba Arena. The virtual Abba, which will be accompanied by a live band, will ‘perform’ songs old and new.