LONDON – I kept turning to my friend to tell him how young and fresh the two women who played the ace in Abba looked on the huge screens in front of us. Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad weren’t actually in the room with us, but that’s the kind of stupor Abba Voyage dazzles you into.
Although the Swedish pop band have not performed in London since 1979, the band’s holographic ‘Abbatars’, based on their likeness from that year, currently fill a purpose-built arena for a 90-minute concert of their biggest hits. A combination of motion-captured performance, animated sequences and a live 10-piece band makes up the spectacle, which makes a compelling argument for the music’s ongoing relevance.
Projected onto a screen that wraps one side of the spaceship-like auditorium, the Abbatars mostly play as if it were a real concert. They “enter” from below the stage, joke with the audience, ask for patience when they change costumes, and return for an encore.
It would feel cheesy if it weren’t so triumphantly fun, and Friday night’s crowd certainly got in on it. Those in attendance, mostly a mix of couples in their mid-60s and younger, disco-leaning gay men, sang through each number with the intensity of a therapeutic ritual. Abba Voyage is an exercise in symbol worship with cutting-edge production values that set it apart from a regular Abba night at the club.
“To be or not to be – that’s not the question anymore,” declares band member Benny Andersson in a pre-recorded solo address, and questions of live performance, truth, eternity and impermanence foam into the sheer dizziness of (almost) the same room be like one of the biggest acts in pop music history.
It’s hard to pin down the reasons why such a strange endeavor is a hit with audiences in the 21st century, but Abbas music has its own strange alchemy. Take “Mamma Mia” (performed here in beaded pink velor jumpsuits): why is the hook an Italian catchphrase? Or “Fernando” (sung against a dramatic lunar eclipse): What could these four Swedes have to say about the Mexican Revolution? And yet something about the seriousness of these songs, reflected in the audience’s busty girdles, has made them inescapable pop standards.
These two songs are performed live, the abbatars life-size and center stage, with surrounding screens projecting close-ups for those seated on the orchestra level behind a huge dance floor. Most of the numbers are done this way and create a concert experience; the audience was delighted to dance along and applaud every step of the way. The choreography, based on the band member’s real-life moves but recorded by younger body doubles, peaked on Gimme! Give me! Gimme!” with the digital Lyngstad performing high-kicks and rolls that I’m not sure the real one was capable of in its prime.
However, a few songs played more like immersive music videos, using the full size of the screens to tell more in-depth visual stories. The band famously sang and played during their own breakup, and “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” a 1977 anthem reflecting the dissolution of romantic and professional ties in the group, is performed here as an Ingmar Bergman-esque study of missed connections. The broken faces of its members sing about a hall of mirrors before finally embracing in reconciliation.
Less successful than these episodes were two fully animated numbers set to “Eagle” and “Voulez Vous” which followed a young traveler’s journey through forests and pyramids, culminating in their discovery of giant sculptures of the band members’ heads.
These songs recreate the interludes of a “real” concert, as well as speeches from each abbatar about their success and artistry. The best of these interludes was when the band presented footage of their Eurovision Song Contest-winning performance of “Waterloo,” the song that catapulted them to fame in 1974.
Abba’s music is deceptively complex. What sounds like a simple little song turns out to be an intricately layered web of harmonies, melodies, real and digital instruments and angelic English vocals, slightly outside the band’s Scandinavian comfort zone.
It’s a blend of wizardry and technical prowess that decades later, after movies and musicals and greatest hits compilations, still stands at the forefront of pop maximalism. Hearing the closing piano riffs of “Chiquitita” in a crowded arena is an uplifting experience, and despite its surprising premise, Abba Voyage miraculously takes off.