I’ve seen the best. The maddest and the fieriest and the deepest and the heaviest. I’ve watched them, open-mouthed: HR, from Bad Brains, executing a perfect backflip to land crisply on the band’s last syllable of chord-crash; Patti Smith singing “Beneath the Southern Cross,” heaving open the doors to the underworld with the pressure of her own breath; Iggy Pop, berserk, doing “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with Sonic Youth as his backing band. And none of these, none of these, transported me in quite the manner in which I was transported a few weeks ago by a vision of ABBA.
And it was a vision. At a purpose-built arena in East London, ABBA—those smiley, soft-spoken radicals; those almost blandly futuristic Swedes—has orchestrated an immaculate 3,000-person, 95-minute digital hallucination. This is CGI stuff, the outer limit. Four figures appear onstage before us, avatars, daemons, numina, whatever they are, denser than holograms, more shimmeringly charged than human beings, with a kind of atomic brightness, composites of light and longing. And we know them: Björn, Benny, Agnetha, Frida, in their late-’70s/early-’80s pomp, their poppiest plumage, variously nodding and swishing and keening and twinkling and making little gracious gestures. Huge sidescreens give us close-ups, flashes of realism—the eyes, the sweat on the cheekbones. Holy shit. ABBA!
ABBA Voyage was five years and zillions of dollars in the making, a meisterwerk created with Industrial Light & Magic, the visual-effects company founded by George Lucas. And it’s the future, quite obviously. Present-day old-age ABBA, having worked for weeks in motion-capture suits to get the genetic code of ABBA-ness into the ILM computers, can now sit back as these radiant editions of their younger, prettier selves sell the place out night after night. The brain buys it, is the point: Your wobbly old analog brain, as you watch these figments come high-heeling out of the digital ether, is very happy to accept them as real. Very happy to weep, cheer, join in the chorus, wave your arms. It’s a success, artistically and … neurologically. This could go to Vegas, this could go to Sydney, this could go anywhere. Everywhere. The Rolling Stones could do it. Lana Del Rey could do it. The pop star as pure illusion, pure imago, pure energy state, infinitely reproducible and infinitely potent if you have the tech. David Bowie, where are you?
(Actually, I know where David Bowie is, at least tonight. He is weirdly inhabiting the cyberapparition of ABBA’s Frida, who is revealed by this experience, and by the trick of time, as not a sweet and cheesy pop star but a teetering, angular ’70s-style rock star, loaded with otherworldliness. Her disco hauteur, her hair of Ziggy-est red, the filter of alienation on her beauty, and the seam of coldness in her voice. Frida’s onstage authority, even as the rest of ABBA boogies and beams around her, even as she boogies and beams, is Bowie-esque, Bowie-echoing, no other way to put it.)
They—“they”—open with the massive, foreboding synth-throb of “The Visitors.” Perfect choice: the most paranoid and eerily electronicized of all ABBA songs. “I hear the doorbell ring and suddenly the panic takes me / The sound so ominously tearing through the silence.” Sung by Frida, of course, in a sinuous, ceremonial, artificially thinned voice. “And now they’ve come to take me / Come to break me …” She—“she”—raises her arms, phoenixlike, and light spatters off her amazing, bedazzling cape, all around the arena. It’s jaw-dropping, literally: I go Uuuuuuuuh …
Part of the secret of ABBA’s music is its inorganic quality—the ticktock notes at the beginning of “Mamma Mia,” the robotically chanted backing vocals to “Take a Chance on Me”—as if among its primary elements of tinkly Euro-pop and Scandinavian sing-along were Kraftwerk and Gary Numan. ABBA Voyage’s director, Baillie Walsh, when asked in the official concert program how he would describe ABBA to someone who’s never heard them, answers: “A folk group from Mars.”
And then there’s the repression. The frozen lake of sadness. Benny and Björn were a grinning hit factory, a two-man Brill Building, and the group as a whole never failed to project a sheen of super-trouper professionalism. But the music of ABBA is quietly thunderous with heartbreak and failure. “Deep inside / Both of us can feel the autumn chill …” Agnetha was married to Björn, and Frida was married to Benny, and both of these marriages collapsed, sundered like calving glaciers as ABBA went global. “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” at the arena in London, is almost sensory-emotional overkill: Refracted and merging mirror images of the two couples ripple across the stage as the anthemic breakup lyrics shake our ribs. “We just have to face it / This time (this time) we’re through.” Strong men cry—or I do, anyway—at the peculiarly ringing metallic melancholy of great, late ABBA.
The whole world loves ABBA, but England especially, because of the repression (see above). So ABBA Voyage opened in England, in the special arena—Nordically tasteful in dark metal and blond wood, like the back parts of Keflavík airport—at Pudding Mill Lane, in London’s redeveloped Docklands. Seven performances a week, sold out for months to come. The crowd bubbles. The crowd is thrilled to be there. “Dancing Queen” is a celestial event; a kind of black hole of joy; a rushing, released groove unlike any other in the ABBA songbook. The ushers in the aisles turn to us and wave their arms over their heads, so we wave ours too—we in our feather boas and our sensible shirts, our gleaming youth and our dowdy middle age, our gayness and our straightness, a solid wedge of the Great British Public. ABBA people.
Cartilaginous tubes of Nothingness. That’s a line I scribbled in my notebook at some point in the evening. I must have been getting freaked out. Because it was freaky, undergoing the memory onslaught of compacted decades of ABBA experience while gazing enraptured at something that, when you got right down to it, wasn’t there. In the spaces between these near-angelic digital beings, in the spaces behind them, the unreality comes trickling in—through holes and portals and cartilaginous tubes of nothingness. Here’s what you don’t get, will never get, at an event like this: the sensation of the performers locking in, intensifying, beginning to draw their power from a grid that transcends the immediate moment. Power like a gift, pouring out of the holy matrix. That won’t happen. Even if the Björn avatar does a backflip at the end of “The Winner Takes It All,” or humps the stage like Iggy Pop.
But I’m old, aren’t I, and my skin is cold, and I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. This is what’s coming, like it (or love it) or not. And for ABBA, with their silvery excellence, their poignancy and remoteness and smilingness, and their astrally piercing harmonies, it’s perfect. It’s state-of-the-art. They can live forever like this. There’s an ABBA thing, a resurgence, an indulgence, going on right now on TikTok. Great pop never dies. And now it really never dies. Ground control to Major Tom: Stay right where you are. No need to come back to Earth. “To be or not to be,” says the enigmatic Benny avatar to the audience at ABBA Voyage, musing between songs. “That is no longer the question.”
This article appears in the November 2022 print edition with the headline “Take a Chance on Them.”