Have ABBA retired because their new music was a disaster?

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ABBA’s two new singles haven't got anywhere near the coveted no1 spot in the charts - Alamy
ABBA’s two new singles haven't got anywhere near the coveted no1 spot in the charts - Alamy

My, my – ABBA have just revealed they’re breaking up. The week before the release of their first album in 40 years, the Swedish pop titans have taken the surprising step of finally, definitively and forever calling it quits. Far from heralding a glorious new dawn for sequinned bell-bottoms and statement disco beards, the Voyage LP will instead mark ABBA’s long journey into the sunset. Is that how comebacks are supposed to work?

“This is it,” shrugged the group’s Benny Andersson in an interview with The Guardian. “It’s got to be, you know.”

The announcement in September of a new album from Benny, Björn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid had whipped fans into a feel-good frenzy. There was also the intriguing news that the quartet would be staging a season of high-tech comeback shows in London , running from May to December 2022, utilising cutting-edge technology and starring “ABBAtars” of the foursome in their heyday.

Yet now, as we count down to the November 5 release of Voyage, ABBA have taken their disco ball and gone home. It turns out their grand return is actually their big goodbye.

“I didn’t actually say that, ‘This is it’ in 1982,” said Andersson of the group's initial drift apart. “I never said myself that ABBA was never going to happen again. But I can tell you now: this is it.”

The bombshell that ABBA are bowing out at their moment of greatest triumph comes as a shock. Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus were making very different noises at their September 3 press conference, in which they enthused about “sailing into uncharted waters” and travelling “into the future”.

Global headlines ensued. And yet ABBA’s resumption of pop duties has proved rather less blockbusting that they might have expected. And this perhaps explains why they are so decisive about throwing in the towel.

ABBA have released three comeback singles, none of which have set the world ablaze. Don’t Shut Me Down – a sickly reprise of Dancing Queen and Waterloo – stalled at nine in the charts, below older singles by Lil Nas X and Ed Sheeran.

And I Still Have Faith In You – essentially a slowed-down and underwhelming Thank You for the Music – fared even worse, peaking at 14 and hanging around in the Top 50 a mere two weeks. Just a Notion, which this paper gave just two stars, didn’t dent the charts at all. Whatever else the public wanted from an ABBA comeback, it certainly wasn’t a double-whammy of misfiring 45s.

Questions have meanwhile emerged over their London residency, for which tickets remain available later in the run (May is more or less a straight sell-out). ABBA made a great fuss over the cutting edge ABBAtars they will debut at the 3,000 capacity, purpose-built arena at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Tickets for ABBA Voyage have not sold out
Tickets for ABBA Voyage have not sold out

All in their seventies, band felt they were too creaky to perform in person – though pensioner status hasn’t prevented Elton John, The Rolling Stones and others from continuing to clock up air miles. Instead ABBA worked with Industrial Light and Magic to develop the ABBAtars– digitally de-aged versions of the band who would bash out all the hits (as well one or two new songs).

However, new details about the shows do not quite set the pulse aflutter. ABBA were clear in their September 3 press conference about not wanting to use holograms, feeling the technology was unconvincing. Yet in their Guardian interview it emerged that their Industrial Light and Magic avatars are to be projected on to a flat screen. There will be a live band – led by Jamie Righton of defunct “nu-ravers” Klaxons, of all people – but ABBA themselves will be strictly two-dimensional.

ABBA clearly feel they are excessively long in the tooth to jump fully back into the fray. Yet for rock stars age isn’t what it once was. Last year Paul McCartney, then 78, released the dynamic and heartfelt McCartney III – a record that bore little resemblance to the music he wrote a lifetime ago with the Beatles. And Elton John’s latest, The Lockdown Sessions, is a series of up-to-the-minute and up-tempo duets with Miley Cyrus, Olly Alexander and others.

The good old days: ABBA in their pomp, 1979 - AP
The good old days: ABBA in their pomp, 1979 - AP

His enthusiasm for new music and for remaining fully relevant as an artist is in contrast to the half-heartedness with which ABBA have gone about their reunion. As they plotted their comeback, the band had two valid options. They could either evolve artistically and prove that they still had something to say in 2021 (imagine a gnarled Abba blues album?). Or they could lean into the nostalgia and focus on delivering an engaging greatest hits tour (as Guns ’n’ Roses have done).

Instead they muddled through with a disappointing hodgepodge. Their new songs sound like their old songs, only not as exciting. And their very expensive ABBA Arena residency may very well be a victory for technology over soul.

Benny and the gang also find themselves in competition with a well-established ABBA nostalgia industry. Would you rather pay £77 to watch flesh-and-blood singers belt out the hits at Mamma Mia! on the West End. Or fork out £117 to sit through the 2-D ABBAtars at the Abba Arena?

It’s all started to fall slightly flat then. Perhaps that’s why they’ve decided to officially bow out. And why it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that ABBA were never all that keen on coming back in the first place.