abba: what should we expect from music's most impossible comeback?

They said it would never happen! No, really, they literally said it would never happen.

by Angus Harrison
08 May 2018, 7:30am

We’ve lived through enough 20th century exhumations at this stage to be bored by them, yet the prospect of an ABBA reunion has always seemed uniquely impossible. While seven-figure tours have dragged inconceivable reconciliations out of Guns N’Roses and Fleetwood Mac, and even managed to circumnavigate Freddie Mercury’s death to stage endless Queen arena shows, the forces keeping Benny, Björn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid apart always seemed greater money (and they’ve been offered enough of it, turning down a reported $1 billion offer in 2000). Whenever the question came up their answer always remained the same.

“It won’t happen,” Benny said in 2009. “I feel very strongly that I would like people to remember us as we were,” Björn agreed.

Well, even tectonic plates shift. Over the last couple of years a gradual thawing seems to have taken place. The band have been photographed together at various events, and even performed an impromptu song as a four in 2016. The news last week, that they are currently recording their first new music since 1982, feels like a breakthrough. The prospect of a reunion proper, for better or for worse, suddenly seems real -- if not likely.

Which begs an obvious question: what will this new ABBA sound like? Expectations differ across generation and social inclination. For every Ken Bruce listener hoping for Knowing Me, Knowing You, there’s a poptimist millennial expecting Voulez-Vous. For every musical theatre mum anticipating Thank You For the Music...Again! featuring Pierce Brosnan, there’s a Balearic sad-lad somewhere praying for something darker, something stranger. It’s a conflict that speaks to what ABBA have become and the complicated nature of their return.

In their purest form, the band you probably first encountered plonked in front of Top of the Pops 2 eating fish fingers and chips, ABBA are Eurovision winners. Waterloo, their breakthrough single in the UK, positioned them as purveyors of froth in period of national darkness -- literally, the contest took place during the three-day-week in the UK, imposed by the Conservative government as a means of restricting electricity during the miners strike. Their lyrics (in this case a loose allegory comparing shagging your ex to the Napoleonic wars) were window dressing for music that existed to be frilly as their clothing.

Many people’s idea of ABBA is stuck entirely in this period. Even during the peak of their popularity they were written off by most serious musos, falling into the disco-vs-rock schism that plagued categorisations of popular music in the 1970s. That’s not to say their critics have always been wrong. ABBA should never be considered a heavyweight disco act -- they made disco-flecked pop music at best -- and it’s fair to say in the first half of their career they produced a bulk of completely forgettable nonsense. I come out batting for ABBA whenever I’ve had a couple of pints, but even I’d struggle to defend 1974’s King Kong Song. The simple fact is though, Eurovision ABBA have only ever been the tip of the iceberg.

In the blaze of their career, in the mid-1970s, they produced record after record of dark, thunderous pop music. Yes, grinning and cheery, but also mournful, disquieting and at times oddly cold. Dancing Queen is rightly considered the pinnacle of this era, but everything from Super Trouper to Angel Eyes showcases the height of their duplicity. Their final album, The Visitors, is a simmering, dense incarnation of the music they broke through with. Dragging with midlife angst and regret in its pockets, backgrounded by a less-than-subtle Cold War commentary, it’s probably the best thing they ever recorded.

By the time they broke up in 1982 -- sporting mullets and fazing Noel Edmonds -- ABBA had tapped into something completely different. Their final separation, inextricably linked to marital breakdown, was a quiet domestic tragedy of the sort they’d spent so long singing about. In the years that followed, Benny and Björn went full Andrew Lloyd-Webber writing blockbuster musicals, Agnetha and Anni-Frid disappeared from the public eye entirely, and ABBA were consigned, with finality, to memory and imagination.

Yet it’s in their absence that they become such a multi-dimensional act. The mainstream renaissance came in 1992, when ABBA Gold, a comprehensive compilation of the big hitters, was released. Considered by many to be a rare, if not solitary, example of an artist’s greatest hits besting any of their albums, it sparked a phenomenal reinvestment in the group. Mamma Mia! the jukebox musical opened on the West End in 1999, and was followed in 2008 by a Meryl Streep-led movie of the same name (the biggest film in the UK box office that year). Their star has travelled a remarkable trajectory: the further away they got the bigger they became.

Yet the vantage of time has also seen them reassessed with a high-fidelity reverence. Exhibitions like the recent Southbank experience narrated by Jarvis Cocker, endless BBC4 documentaries and countless books, have re-positioned them in the tortured genius mould, a chin-stroking admiration they were never afforded in their peak. They have historic ties to the LGBT community around the world, who championed their music long before any serious revisionist histories were written (in 2006 ABBA came together for the first time in over a decade to pledge their support for gay rights in Poland). They are one thing in their native Sweden, and another in their adopted UK. Colossal in Australia, as they are in Japan.

Now, for most people under thirty, they are simply a fun party band, appreciated with a degree of sincerity but mostly accompanied by karaoke-howls. ABBA are a gleaming, unearthed artefact in this respect: we know where they came from and when they were popular, but nobody can quite agree what they are for.

My relationship with ABBA is equally confused. On the one hand I subscribe fully to the line that says they are misunderstood, and should be afforded the grown-up respect more readily given to pompous rock bands. Yet I can’t deny the other side of them: the goofy, chintzy side. The Eurovision side, the Alan Partridge side, the catsuit side. I love that side too, because they are inseparable.

When we listen to ABBA, we don’t only hear the passing of time they sang about, but we hear the passing of time in our own lives, the time that has passed since we heard their songs for the first time. Even the crassest, flashiest end of their ouvre pulls me Proustian-like back to church halls, wedding receptions, car journeys and slow Radio 2-Sundays spent peeling vegetables. Just as their songs were about failed marriages and lonely train journeys, they have also come to be coloured by the hue of our own memories and heartbreak. Like cheap white bread and gameshow repeats, naffness is part of the conceit.

For me, they have taken on a new meaning again in recent years. As I’ve come to know the pointless melodramas of adult life, their oddly tragic strain of heartbreak pop has been a constant companion. There are so many ABBA songs I didn’t know growing up that I now count among my favourites. Under Attack, a song from their final album endowed with one of the great choruses of all time; Eagle, a spangled stomper that wouldn’t be out of place during a Daniele Baldelli set; If It Wasn’t For the Nights, a no-less than a rictus-grinning sesh anthem. As far as I’m concerned, if you haven’t sat slumped on night bus, The Winner Takes it All burrowing deep into your boozy, pickled heart, then you haven’t known true loneliness.

Which is why the prospect of their return worries me on some level. Their untouchable quality -- trapped in the sticky amber of the past -- has allowed them to be read and re-read without intervention. It’s difficult to see how this return won’t disappoint at least someone in the awkwardly-drawn alliance of mums, drag queens, pre-drinkers and Phil Spector acolytes that makes up their fanbase. There’s a chance it could disappoint all of them.

I fear the version of ABBA that will return will likely be the Thank You For the Music version; the blandly sentimental, toothless musical theatre iteration that has come to represent them in the mainstream. And I fear what’s coming next: the Gary Barlow collaborations, the Royal Variety performance introduced by Bradley Walsh, the night I’ll inevitable spend in Hyde Park, clutching an £8 pint, a football pitch away from the action. Reunions take clumsy, hammers to memory, however precious and pristine they might be.

That said, if any act is capable of pulling it off -- producing something both easy and heavy -- it’s ABBA. There is some hope to be taken from a recent BBC interview with the band’s spokesperson Görel Hanser. She describes their recent recording sessions as easy, warm-hearted, and even tearful. “It was wonderful,” she said. “It was like no time had passed at all.”