switched on pop

New ABBA, Just Like the Old ABBA (and Then Some!)

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

For every stan of the Swedish supergroup ABBA, there’s a hater lurking, like legendary pop critic Robert Christgau, who once said of the group, “We have met the enemy, and they are them.” He was suspicious of the catchiness of their music and the earnestness of their lyrics, but regardless of how you feel about them, their compositional acumen cannot be denied. With ABBA releasing their first album in 40 years, now is the perfect time to investigate what makes their music so beloved and reviled in equal measure.

The longevity of their songs is testament to their musical brilliance. So after breaking down the vocal contrast, musical maximalism, and studio wizardry used to concoct world-beating hits like “Super Trouper,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Dancing Queen,” Switched on Pop hosts Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding turn their ears to the band’s latest singles, “Don’t Shut Me Down” and “I Still Have Faith in You,” to determine whether the they represent a return to classic form or a departure into new sonic realms.

Nate: There’s a lot of pressure on ABBA. They’ve released their first two singles in more than 40 years, and they have such a characteristic classic sound. How is this new music going to continue that legacy?

Charlie: I guess the question is, Does the music live in the past or is it ready for the future?

Nate: Let’s find out by listening to “I Still Have Faith in You.” This is the ballad that they’ve just released. Are you hearing any of the classic signature ABBA ingredients here?

Charlie: We have the two vocalists, Agnetha [Fältskog] and Anni-Frid [Lyngstad] in counterpoint, their melodies moving back and forth.

Nate: Anna-Frid is known for her low voice, but I think this is maybe the lowest she has ever sung before, which is kind of cool. It’s like her voice has mellowed with age, and it sounds great. And then, on top of that, we get Agnetha’s high soprano, just like classic ABBA.

Charlie: This is a super-maximalist piece with lush orchestration. It feels like there are an endless number of tracks and instruments. And you can hear the studio wizardry ABBA is known for. I feel like they’re leaning on the high production values of a beautiful, classic recording studio, with big reverb and massive tom-tom-drum fills that almost circle around your head while you’re listening. Above all else, it has a lot of sentimentalism, which I feel is the thing that pop listeners love and so many critics hate. And I understand why they’re continuing that tradition. It is their thing that they’re really good at.

Nate: First of all, Charlie, high marks — you passed the ABBA-fluency test with flying colors.

Charlie: Thank you.

Nate: Now, in addition to this sentimental ballad, ABBA has also released more of a driving disco tune called “Don’t Shut Me Down.” I pose the same question: Is the classic ABBA formula present here? Or are we hearing something new?

Charlie: It sounds like “Dancing Queen” took a 23andMe test and found out that there was a long-lost sibling that had been discovered. There’s so much similarity in a way that feels like it’s feeding the fans, right? It’s like, if you’re going to release two new songs, four decades later, then you want to appeal to the thing that people know.

Nate: I hear what you’re saying. This feels like ABBA redux, but not in a bad way. I love the synthesizer line that takes us out of the chorus. It’s quite unique.

Charlie: I thought it was a saxophone.

Nate: Okay, maybe it is a processed saxophone. Now that I’m listening to it with you, I agree. It has these effects that make it sound almost like a synthesizer.

Charlie: The fact that we’re questioning it suggests that there’s some really interesting stuff happening here. The other thing that I want to consider is whether these songs are looking backward or looking forward? And obviously, if you’re trying to appease a fan base that has been around for a long time, there’s going to be a lot of sticking in your lane, which they should, because they kind of do the ABBA thing.

But if we think about the band pushing forward, it seems as if the disco revival that started, probably, with Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories in 2013 has continued for nearly a decade and is still very much alive, whether it’s in the music of Dua Lipa …

Nate: Kylie Minogue … Jessie Ware …

Charlie: Definitely. It’s still happening. And so maybe it’s actually the perfect time for ABBA to be releasing a new album.

Nate: I love that because I think, you know, love them or hate them, what you’re saying is a reminder that ABBA is an undeniable part of the fabric of contemporary pop music.

And since that is the case, I think it’s worth bringing an appreciative ear to the next time you hear an ABBA song on the radio, at a dance party, or in the inevitable Mamma Mia 3 film that will come out sometime in the next decade. These songs are beloved by so many, criticized by so many, but regardless of how you feel about them, there is such brilliant musical composition going into every single one.

New ABBA, Just Like the Old ABBA (and Then Some!)