Abba's return will be either genius or disaster – but nothing in between | Alexis Petridis

The Swedish four-piece, returning with new material after 35 years, have seen critics finally acclaim their pop brilliance – but they still aren’t immune from writing turkeys

We live in an era where almost every legendary band that can re-form has re-formed, and where technology means not even death is a barrier to 2Pac or Roy Orbison taking the stage once more. The artists who refuse to return carry a certain cachet, and Abba were the most famous hold-outs of all, which makes their decision to record new material a surprise, especially because they don’t need the money.

The first time around, Abba were not taken seriously as artists. The general critical consensus was summed up by a photo of legendary US rock writer Lester Bangs, wearing a T-shirt that read “Abba: the largest-selling group in the history of recorded music” and an expression on his face suggesting this was evidence of western civilisation’s imminent collapse.

In the years since they split up, however, their stock has rightly risen to a dizzying altitude. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson are regularly hailed as the greatest pop songwriting team of their era; the emotional depth and maturity of The Winner Takes It All – and indeed the personal psychodrama behind it – is pored over in a way it never was on release; their relatively overlooked final album, The Visitors, is acclaimed as a kind of Scandi-noir masterpiece. When the BBC made an Abba documentary a few years back, you got the feeling that rock critics and hip musicians alike were queuing up to sing their praises.

A burgeoning artistic reputation to match the skyscraping commercial success – you can imagine see why Abba might think twice about adding to their oeuvre. Then again, it’s not exactly a a flawless oeuvre. There was something fitting about the fact that their Swedish record label was called Polar: in their day, Abba strictly dealt either in pop perfection or records that made you want to rip your head off with embarrassment. The same album that contained Knowing Me, Knowing You, Money, Money, Money and the peerless Dancing Queen also featured the abysmal Dum Dum Diddle, a song about a woman who feels sexually threatened by her violinist partner’s instrument. “You are only smilin’,” she alleges suspiciously, “when you play that violin.” The same songwriter that crafted The Winner Takes It All also crafted Sitting in the Palmtree, a song about a man who deals with romantic rejection by sitting in a palm tree (“I will stay here among my coconuts”).

So if the new Abba songs are fantastic, there’s certainly a precedent. If they’re dreadful, well, there’s a precedent for that, too. Only if they’re mediocre will they come as a shock.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Abba’s new songs reviewed: a perky, moving return to pop’s highest peaks
It is so powerful to hear Agnetha and Anni-Frid singing I Still Have Faith In You together after 40 years – and the slinky, cheeky Don’t Shut Me Down is even better

Jude Rogers

02, Sep, 2021 @7:42 PM

Article image
The greatest banned songs of all time – ranked!
Thirty years on from 2 Live Crew being banned by the Beeb, we pick 20 foul-mouthed, orgiastic outings deemed too scandalous for public consumption

Laura Snapes

14, Feb, 2019 @1:02 PM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: 100-1
Look back on our complete countdown of the greatest UK No 1s, from the Beatles to Baby D, and So Solid Crew to Suzi Quatro

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Alexis Petridis and Laura Snapes

05, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
I Still Have Faith in You – What do you think Abba's new song will be like?
Swedish pop group Abba are to release two new songs. We’d like you to make suggestions for what their new lyrics might be like

Guardian readers

27, Apr, 2018 @12:08 PM

Article image
Abba reunite for Voyage, first new album in 40 years
Swedish hitmakers to release album of brand new material in November, and digital avatars will appear in London concert residency in 2022

Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Mark Brown

02, Sep, 2021 @5:00 PM

Article image
Abba announce first new songs for 35 years
Swedish four-piece take to Instagram to announce two releases that will form part of an ‘avatar tour project’

Alex Needham

27, Apr, 2018 @2:09 PM

Article image
Disco rock – 10 of the best
Led Zep and the Stones liked to up the tempo, Blondie blazed a trail that led to Duran Duran and the Gossip … but was it all dreamed up by George Harrison?

David Bennun

14, Jun, 2017 @1:00 PM

Article image
The 20 best songs of 2021
We celebrate everything from Lil Nas X’s conservative-baiting Montero to Wet Leg’s instant indie classic – as voted for by 31 of the Guardian’s music writers

Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes

29, Nov, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
All Abba's UK singles – ranked!
To mark the release of new film Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, we rate the Swedish pop band’s greatest hits

Priya Elan, Michael Hann, Tim Jonze, John Harris, Peter Robinson, Alex Needham, Dave Simpson and Laura Snapes

29, Jun, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Glastonbury's Shangri-La goes virtual with Fatboy Slim and more
Chaotic rave zone of cancelled festival will be rendered online in 3D for two-day event in July

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

08, Jun, 2020 @5:49 PM