So, why is ABBA back now? The answer is obviously shown in the lyrics of their latest track Don’t shut me down. They claimed that the reason they left nearly 40 years ago was that they felt they had enough, perhaps of the tensions within the band, yet now they’re back because they have “learned to cope, and love, and hope” again. ABBA members are now at the age of 70-something, so maybe such hindsight came a little bit late. Yet anyway, they’re already here and now in a new “shape and form”, or more specifically a younger version of themselves augmented with CGI technology, which they described as “a dream within a dream that’s been decoded”. They’re back in a hope that they might help cast out the bleakness of the contemporary world, and they still have faith in the warm welcoming of their audience, as the title of another track suggests.
This message from ABBA reminds me of the themes of Skyfall and Logan in which the protagonists had been aged but still managed to confront the challenges of a new world. In Skyfall, a weaker and old-fashioned James Bond came back in the darkest hours where many MI6 agents had died due to the terrorist attack, where the criminals were equipped with technology and able to cause more damage on their laptop than what 007 can do in a year. Likewise, Logan depicts a post-apocalyptic mutant world where Logan was losing his healing ability and Charles Xavier was suffering from dementia. However, they still have to cope with the new type of antagonists, younger and less predictable. The world has changed, and there’s no country for old men. Now, if that attempt of the old James Bond and Logan in embracing the changing world really touched me, then this comeback of ABBA also moved me in somewhat the same way.
ABBA says in the lyrics that: “I’m not the one you knew. I’m now and then combined”. And yes; listening to their recently released tracks, we still recognize the same vibe they brought to us 40 years ago, from the run of notes created by moving your finger across the keyboard as in the beginning of Dancing Queen to a chorus with multi-layer vocals. Melody is still an intrinsic part of their music, even though in today’s music scene it is reportedly secondary to rhythm. The melody of Don’t shut me down is uplifting; the arrangement is well thought out, and the voice of Agnetha Fältskog is still breathtakingly beautiful.
And the one thing that makes me love ABBA the most is their down-to-earth and relatable lyrics. If I’m not mistaken, in an interview, the band said that they tried to write the lyrics with some sort of backstory behind. The English version of Fernando, for example, is about two veterans reminiscing in old age about a long-ago battle in which they participated. The Winner Takes It All is about a woman seeing her ex after a long time, recalling the fights they had, and bewildered of the current status of their relationship, “a lover or a friend”. Slipping through my fingers is about a mother’s feelings when she watches her daughter outgrowing her embracing arms, which reminds me of Shiang-An Chuang’s Mama PingPong Social Club. And people of my generation in Vietnam can never forget the lyrics of Happy New Year. The song is probably as monumental as the opening theme of Journey to the West 1986 movie adaptation since it was always played on television during the days before Vietnamese Lunar New Year and has become part of everyone’s childhood. Lyrics have always played a key role in ABBA’s music, and in the latest track Don’t shut me down, the lyrics are still sensible, as I have elaborated above.
If there’s one thing I would complain about the lyrics of Don’t shut me down, it’s that they make me feel as if they’re begging for validation from today’s audience (“and I’m asking you to have an open mind”). Whereas that humble attitude is not surprising since it’s ABBA, you know, but to me, it’s not necessary to ask for the approval from the listeners. Also, the fact that they keep repeating “I’m not the same” or “I’m fired up; I’m hot” is a little too lame to me. Those words are supposed to come from the critics or the audience instead of the artists themselves. And thus, they functioned as an exorcism practice to me in which we have to call out the devils to expel them in advance.
Perhaps the reason why ABBA was so famous around the world, even in such conservative culture as Russian, is that there’s nothing sensitive about their music and their public image. They have always looked uncontroversial and almost scandal-free. Moreover, as some critics have put it, ABBA’s music is a celebration of human emotions, which are the permanent themes of all kinds of arts, and unquestionably, their music aged well. People keep using the term “guilty pleasure” to refer to ABBA, whereas I think the so-called “guilty pleasure” is much of hypocrisy or cowardice. Why is it that you have to pretend to despise the music that you like just because someone says it’s basic?