It’s hard to think of any group of performers that got back together after 40 years apart, and ABBA has not half-stepped the announcement of its return. While it was first announced rather vaguely three and a half years ago, they waited until the time was ripe to do it officially: Via a global livestream that was also aired at special fan events all over the world (including one in New York just hours after record-breaking rainfall and flooding), we got two brand-new songs — the first new material from the group in nearly four decades — news of an album due on Nov. 5, and what seems to be a completely groundbreaking virtual concert that will premiere in a specially built London arena next May.
The center of the hour-long livestream was a long interview with the group’s songwriters, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, where they talked about the new songs, the album and the concert, which will feature avatars (if the official name isn’t “ABBAtars,” it should be) of the four members — Andersson, Ulvaeus and singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad — that were painstakingly created by more than 100 digital artists and technicians from George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic special-effects company.
Of the album’s creation, Andersson said simply, “First it was just two songs, then we said, ‘Maybe we should do, I don’t know, a few others? What do you say, girls?’ They said yes, then I said why don’t we just do a whole album.”
The lead song is the ballad “I Still Have Faith in You,” which actually has a similar feel to tracks from the group’s most recent album, “The Visitors” (odd as it seems to say that about an album released in 1981). Also like songs from that album, it’s about the members of ABBA and what they’ve meant to each other.
“When Benny played the melody, I just knew it had to be about us,” Ulvaeus said. “It’s about realizing that it’s inconceivable to be where we are [today] — no imagination could dream up that, to release a new album after 40 years, and still be the best of friends and still be enjoying each other’s company and have total loyalty. Who has experienced that?”
Asked what the album’s songs and their themes are like, Andersson said, “It’s a little mixture of everything, like it has been on our records throughout the years. We have a little Christmas tune, it’s called ‘Little Things,’ and there’s a number of pop songs as well.”
Crucially, the two new songs also are age-appropriate for the septuagenarian members: They’re classic ABBA songs that don’t try to adopt new styles or even revive the more dance-oriented sounds of the group’s past.
“We’re not competing with Drake and all these other guys,” Andersson laughed. “We can’t, because I don’t understand the ingredients in the songs that work today, so it’s impossible to emulate. I don’t mind Drake, I just don’t know what modern pop artists are doing.”
Ulvaeus continued, “At our age, there’s a certain depth to the whole thing, musically and lyrically, and of course the way [Fältskog and Lyngstad] sing and the way they deliver. There’s a lot of experience and a lot of years in that that I hope people can feel.”
As for the show, ILM’s artists and technicians meticulously filmed the bandmembers performing a 22-song setlist over the course of five weeks — and then essentially reverse-aged them using digital technology. (See the livestream, beginning at around the 22-minute mark, for visuals and more details.)
Ben Morris of ILM said, “They got on a stage in front of 160 cameras and almost as may genius [digital] artists, and performed every song in this show to perfection, capturing every mannerism, every emotion, the soul of their beings — so that becomes the great magic of this endeavor. It is not four people pretending to be ABBA: It is actually them.
The concept is essentially ABBA today performing as their younger selves, Morris continued. “We create Abba in their prime — 1979 — as digital characters that we will then use performance-capture techniques to animate and perform them and make them look real,” he said. “That [process] started with present-day ABBA: We did performance-capture with them, and that’s formed the basis of the whole project.”
Andersson cracked, “The only big problem [in the digital performances] was we had to shave our beards!,” he laughed. “I’ve had mine for 50 years, but they had to get everything right,” for the video recordings, and beards would have complicated the accuracy.
“But Frida and Agnetha didn’t have to shave!,” he laughed.
“We have really infused ourselves into these avatars in so many ways,” Ulvaeus added.
As for the big question — the songs they will perform in the show — Andersson said, “It’s sort of a greatest hits, I’d say, but [also] we tried to play a couple of songs that were not great hits but that we like.
“‘Dancing Queen,’ is going to be in it,” he said to cheers from the audience, “It’s 22 songs, and hour and a half approximately, and also those two new songs we released today.
“We hadn’t recorded the other [new] songs when we [filmed] this motion thing,” he continued, “but we said maybe we should do a couple more because it was so joyful to be together in the studio again, the four of us. Hearing Agnetha and Frida go for it again — and not knowing, really, if it was still there.”
Ulvaeus expanded on that reunion to Apple Music in an interview released Thursday, “We’d see each other every now and then, but it was especially clear when we were in the studio for the first time for this album, together, because that was so strange and wonderful at the same time. Everything came rushing back, like it was yesterday.… I looked around and I looked into Agnetha’s eyes and Frida’s eyes and there was the same kind of feeling, the warmth and the friendship and the bonds, between us that, as you suddenly realize no one on earth has experienced this kind of relationship that we have because, thinking about it, it’s true, nobody else has. Sadly, people die and they don’t stay on friendly terms for their whole lives, but we have. And I’m so incredibly happy for that.”
Andersson added during the livestream, “Five minutes before they got to the studio I was thinking, ‘I should have asked if they can still sing!,’” he laughed. “But they could, and can, and have done so, and you’ll hear that.”