When I woke up this morning and turned on the computer to find enjoyable material to listen to as I began to work, I found myself greeted with the last part of a livestream in which the two male members of ABBA were announcing their first new album in nearly 40 years, discussing their career, music, and reunion, and also talking about their upcoming hologram tour. It was particularly interesting to hear them talk about how a reunion started with an effort to record a couple of songs (both of which were released today to the general public on YouTube and other streaming services, where I may have played them multiple times), both of which have received a mixed to positive reception, depending on the extent to which people appreciate the meta aspect of the songs and what they have to say about ABBA and their experience and legacy. For the record, I am fond of it.
One of the things that struck me most about the single “I Still Have Faith In You” is the acknowledgement of the group of the bittersweet nature of their music. I have found, as a longtime listener of pop music, that people tend to gauge the emotional register of the music by the sound of the music and not by the content of the lyrics. I find that as a listener I appreciate both words and music, but perhaps unsurprisingly I have a complex appreciation of both and tend to prefer somewhat melancholy and reflective lyrics set to generally melodic and often upbeat music. Equally unsurprisingly, this is an emotional register that corresponds greatly to ABBA, and is on full display in both of the new songs they released today as I write this. It is not a quality that is unique to them–it is something that one can easily find in the music of groups as diverse as the Goo Goo Dolls, The Bee Gees, and the songs written by Christine McVie as a solo artist and with Fleetwood Mac–but it is a quality I tend to enjoy wholeheartedly because both the upbeat music and the downbeat lyrics tend to resonate strongly with me.
The last time ABBA appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 was in June 1982 when the minor hit “The Visitors” departed from the chart after an eight week run. In many ways, the bittersweet nature of the group’s music belied a genuine friendship felt by the various members of the group even as they went their separate ways personally and professionally. If their music was perhaps not initially seen as being as deep and thoughtful as it was, and if their cheery music often belied songs about mistrust, anxiety, loneliness, and the fallout of broken relationships, among other subjects, eventually the group did receive the regard that was due to them. If they seem surprised that their pop songs have endured in popularity over the course of nearly forty years without having released new music, it is largely because those who create beautiful art are seldom far enough away from that art to appreciate its distinctive and worthwhile qualities in the midst of the grind. One needs a certain sense of distance to be a fair critic of art, just as one needs a certain sense of intimacy and relatability with art to be a fan of it, even if that intimacy and distance are both somewhat illusory when examined deeply.
ABBA was made up of two couples, and neither couple survived the years of performing as a group, and ultimately the group itself did not survive the personal drama within the group, which had the awkwardness of the two men writing and producing songs largely sung by the two women that dealt with the complex feelings and relationship drama within the group. It is perhaps not surprising that while the songs have endured the group itself struggled to deal with the fallout of their lives, even if they have always retained respect for each other. It is perhaps unsurprising, though, that the songs they wrote were bittersweet. The lives of the members are full of bittersweetness–that of Anni-Frid Lyngstad is dramatic enough to make several movies, from her birth in the doomed union of a young Norwegian woman and a German soldier, having lost that mother in her youth, being raised in Sweden by her grandmother to avoid the repercussions of WWII collaboration in postwar Norway, only finding out her father was alive when she was a big star in ABBA just about to embark on her second unsuccessful marriage, before a successful solo career in the early 1980’s and becoming a princess, before losing her husband and having a lengthy relationship that continues today with an English viscount. With a life of such highs and lows, how could the music one made out of such life be anything other than bittersweet. Given such a beginning, bittersweet is quite an accomplishment. We should all be so fortunate.