It’s no surprise that this concert is taking the world by storm.
After all, ABBA told countless people, countless times, that they’d never be seen on stage again. I don’t blame them – they certainly went through the wringer together, one way or another. It’s no wonder they parted ways in the 1980s and declined to reunite until the late 2010s. But what they’ve come up with has made the long wait worth it. Two words: ‘ABBA’ and ‘Voyage’.
I went to see their digital concert for the second time last night. The first time was in the summer, one of the hottest days of the year, sending the temperature both inside and outside the purpose-built ABBA Arena somewhere near the seventh circle of hell. At least this time it was cold outside! But no matter how hot it gets in there, that could never ruin the performance. My mind – both times – was blown by the sheer all-encompassing majesty of it.
Your first impressions of the ABBA Arena are, if you take the Tube to Stratford and then the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to Pudding Mill Lane as most do, very colourful. A large, angular building rushes towards you, unmistakeable as the Arena thanks to the huge ‘ABBA’ painted in neon rainbow colours and beamed up on the outer wall, ready to be the background of many selfies. Once you’re actually off the train and have taken the requisite photograph, it’s a quick waltz through security (stationed beneath a colourful lit shelter) before you’re in the hall. There, you can buy food and drinks, merchandise and programmes, before you enter the main arena via a clearly signposted corridor, lit with bright colours (see a pattern emerging here?).
Once you’ve found your position (we had a bit of a job finding our seats, because we were in row P and for some reason they’ve taken the letter O out of the alphabet), you settle down to wait. There’s no shortage of things to look at – the dance floor rapidly fills up, with people tending to sit on the floor until they run out of room, and up ahead on the front walls is a beautiful image of a forest that slowly moves at a pace to match the eerie background music. I found that the said music gets louder and more intense the closer you get to the performance, but it’s never intrusive – you can hear anything you say to your companions with no problem. I found that it even made the seats vibrate at times, and it really added to the anticipation.
Then, after a quick debrief from a friendly voiceover, it’s onto the performance. The lights dim and snow starts to descend on the forest, while Benny Andersson’s Skallgång plays. The forest fades, and you are immersed in the lighting as you await the first glimpse of ABBA.
When they do appear, they are utterly majestic. Frida’s solo vocals open the show, and although at first they’re about as big as pins, you can just tell who’s who and who’s standing where. In the instrumental breaks in the first song, the girls swish about the stage with such poise and grace and elegance that the combination of music and dance just gives you goosebumps. In fact, the whole song does. I’d overlooked that one before, as it’s one of their last ones, composed after things went wrong for them, but now it’s my new favourite. It’s a stroke of genius to start with it, as it eases you into the performance without launching you straight into something wildly popular, and introduces you to the ABBAtars in a way that totally bowls you over, even if you don’t know the song. Even listening to it at home brings back those intense, whole-body feelings of awe and wonder – I hope they never fade.
The way they link the songs is also very clever. Some songs end with a flourish, some segue into the next seamlessly. It might just be me being a superfan, but at times I actually predicted which song would be coming next, just based on tiny things in the music at the end of the previous song. Speaking of the music, it’s EVERYWHERE. Coming out of the walls, the floor, even the seats, infusing into your blood and your bones – or that’s how it feels, anyway. This is thanks to the incredible live band, who get their own number along with the fabulous backing vocalists about halfway through. It can’t be easy, singing and playing the exact same things nearly every day (sometimes twice a day), but they make it seem fresh and exciting, as if it was the first time. Occasionally ABBA’s vocals are buried under the backing singers, but that can be forgiven because they are just so brilliant.
I haven’t seen many reviews talking about the Rora videos. This animation by Shynola – the same company that created the music video for I Still Have Faith In You, one of ABBA’s comeback singles – follows a young explorer called Rora as they embark on… well, an ABBA voyage! Two songs are dedicated to them, and although at first it struck me as a curious thing to include, the more I think about it the more it makes sense. To cover for supposed costume changes, as a nod to twenty-first century technology and just to do something a bit different, why not include it?
It's easy to forget that the whole thing is an animation of sorts. If you blink you could swear they were the real people. For those of us born too late to celebrate the real-life ABBA as they were in the 1970s, this is a glorious alternative. They’ll never go out of date, but listening to them at home, their vocals sometimes seem distant. Old videos and articles and clips create a sense of ‘otherness’ about them – not in a bad way. They are The ABBA, singer-songwriter Eurovision-winning pop group extraordinaires. Voyage brings them and their voices back to us, back to our level. They are us and we are them, and they feel so real you could almost touch them.
Currently, the residency is confirmed to run until May 2023, with the possibility of it being extended until 2026. Frankly, it will never be long enough. I could happily spend the rest of my life savings on tickets to see it every night – and I’m only half joking! Seriously though, I hope they make some sort of DVD or downloadable watch-at-home version when it’s all over. So that people like my grandmother, who’d love to go and see it but is restricted by her physical ability, can still experience it. Although how they’d fit everything onto one screen is beyond my imagination – what with the lighting, the projections, the band, you could go twenty times and still find something new to look at, some little detail you hadn’t noticed before. And it would be exceedingly difficult to bottle up the atmosphere. All emotions are heightened in there. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such unadulterated euphoria in a long time, if ever.
Which is really what we all need at this time, don’t we? In this world full of war, political and economic turmoil, we need more accessible euphoria. Every time ABBA Voyage plays, seven times a week, a room of around 3,000 people are brought together by ABBA’s timeless music. We are all so different, so divided in our everyday lives these days, but last night I looked around the room and didn’t see any of that. I just saw a sea of people jumping up and down, waving their arms in the air and singing their hearts out to some of the best and most relatable pop songs in existence. This, above all, is why I highly, highly recommend ABBA Voyage. It’s why I’m not only thanking ABBA for the music (sorry, I had to go there) but for absolutely everything. Because when all is said and done, it’s music that has the most potential to bring us together and fill the hole in our souls. And in the words of I Still Have Faith In You: ‘it all comes down to love’.