Swedish Pop powerhouse announced their return greeted as a ray of sunshine in what has been a challenging period for us all. But is this nostalgia powered spectacle a force for good?
ABBA are back! Did they ever go away? Multiple generations held their breath as the ultimate pop idols unveiled a launch date for a new album, Voyage and some extraordinary plans.
Two new songs were released to tease the masses. I still have faith in you and Don't shut me down. Both slide effortlessly into the ABBA canon, sounding immediately at home alongside the latter era of the group, think Our last summer, The Name of the Game Under Attack, Cassandra. These are not new Waterloos or Dancing Queens (Although Don't shut me down has an obvious nostalgic nod to Dancing Queen which you cannot fail to miss). The voices are still the best pairing in pop. Older, more fragile, tinged with a flavour of wisdom and grace. The girls remain as aloof and powerful in their audio chemistry as ever.
The live broadcast to announce the new recordings was on the ABBA Youtube channel and during the hour long package we were treated to an interview with Benny and Björn. The writing duo revealed the new album would feature ten tracks and the group were going to return to the stage and perform an hour and a half live show.....well......almost......
Rumours of an ABBA virtual reality show have circulated for almost a decade and it has now been confirmed this was all true. The group had been approached with the plan for a holographic stage show but the technology did not exist. Well, thousands of man hours, four Industrial Light and Magic effects studios later and the behemoths of pop have made the impossible reality.
A purpose built arena is being constructed in Stratford, London for the 22 song show, it is certainly an extraordinary undertaking, a fantastic voyage in to new realms of possibility. An indefinite residency in a 3,000 seat arena.
I am an avowed ABBA fan, I have been for as long as I can remember. I devoured the music, from the smash hits to obscure unreleased studio sessions. The creations of Benny and Björn are perfect pop. Carefully crafted melodies blended with lyrics of heartache and pain. Lost love, unrequited love, grown up wistful longing. The songs spoke to me of an adulthood to come and even at a young age, I knew they would speak to me of an adulthood I would look back upon. I would implore someone to "take a chance on me", I would have memories of good days , bad days, I would even get to watch my children leave for school and have the overwhelming feeling that they were "slipping through my fingers". The dichotomy of pop, the upbeat enthusiasm laced with bittersweet melancholy is best expressed in the music of ABBA and their songs still feel fresh and complex and instantly accessible even after all these years.
Something here feels amiss.
Something lurks at the edge of the warm heartfelt glow as we treasure this new ABBA concoction. At the limit of the light stalks a vision of a future that makes the ersatz confection of pop until now suddenly feel under threat.
Society has been prepared for this step. Stories promising virtual reality reproductions of long dead actors excited tech geeks and alarmed acting unions. The Gorillaz demonstrated a half way house advance by projecting avatars in front of their performance on the stage, the Michael Jackson return tour went ahead despite the awkward reality of his untimely death. The film Blade Runner 2049 gave us a cynical glimpse of this future as K and Deckard faced each other whilst being serenaded by a hard drive skipping Elvis holographic performance.
This much vaunted ABBA return is not really anything of the sort. Those who line up to pay their fees to see ABBA in concert will be watching ABATARS, a curious uncanny valley of synthetic construction overlaid on motion captured performances. The publicity is keen to relentlessly push the idea that the public will be watching an ABBA performance, but it is, in all truth, a high definition light show to accompany a new recording of old favourites. There can be no interaction with the audience, there can be no requests, no grateful appreciation of applause. This will not be a live show, it will be a projection.
This has been a huge financial investment and ABBA are bankable success. If any band was to make a return and move the market, the Swedish quartet were the product to shift. The outlay to make this possible has given Industrial Light and Magic and their partners the bedrock from which to launch a new era of a musical concert going experience. Why mourn the passing of your favourite group, why muse that you were not yet born before the Beatles stopped performing? A series of concerts built on the power of memories and the bankability of a well known back catalogue......why speculate your investment on new bands or risk outlay on paying performers who might not be able to hit the notes or play the riff?
We all know the taste of disappointment already. Our recent experience replacing human contact with a zoom call. Black mirrors round the table at Christmas. Hollywood has been mining the seam of our nostalgia for some time now and the lack of original creative activity is obvious to most, with the devastating impact of digital technology on the music industry model, it is hardly surprising somebody somewhere has hit upon the idea of digital skin suits of our beloved favourites to tempt us to part with our cash once again. "I Still Have Faith in You" ABBA and we "Thank you for the music" but this new voyage will be a spectacle, not a show. Pop has eaten itself, and our own memories are the dessert course.