The opening of Abba’s Voyage show is undoubtedly an event – even the band’s most famously publicity-shy member, Agnetha Fältskog, is in attendance – but it’s one accompanied by a genuine sense of mystery. If the mystery isn’t as all-encompassing as that which surrounded the first night of Kate Bush’s return to live performance in 2014 – you at least have a pretty good idea in advance of what songs will be involved, which certainly wasn’t the case then – the question of precisely how Abba will be brought back to life almost 40 years after their last public performance remains veiled in secrecy.
We’ve all seen the band’s eerily de-aged digital avatars – or Abbatars, as they persist in calling them – but what form they take has remained classified: the only solid clue was that they weren’t holograms, which hasn’t stopped the British media doggedly referring to them as holograms ever since.
Whatever they are, the effect is genuinely jaw-dropping. Watching the four figures on the stage, it’s almost impossible to tell you’re not watching human beings: occasionally, there’s a hint of video game uncanny valley about the projections on the giant screens either side of the stage, but your attention is continually drawn to the human-sized avatars.
They gaze sadly into each other’s eyes during The Winner Takes It All, deliver cheesy speeches between songs – “I wasn’t married at the time,” says the figure representing Björn Ulvaeus, explaining the genesis of Does Your Mother Know [that you’re out?], “or was I?” – and protest at the British judges giving them nul points during the 1974 Eurovision song contest. There are even lulls in the performance, just as there are at a “real” gig, usually when the action shifts from the avatars to more straightforward footage: a lengthy animation shown during Eagle providing an opportunity to visit the bar.
Aside from an opening salvo involving 1982’s darkly powerful The Visitors and Hole In Your Soul, a track from 1978’s Abba The Album, the setlist largely sticks to crowd-pleasing greatest hits – Waterloo, SOS, Knowing Me Knowing You – rather than scouring Abba’s oeuvre for deep cuts. This is both smart commercial sense – this is a show designed to run and run, potentially in several countries at once, something you’re never going to achieve if diehard fans are your target market – and probably for the best, given what a treacherous business scouring Abba’s oeuvre for deep cuts is.
You’re as likely to encounter something like Put On Your White Sombrero or King Kong Song – “can’t you hear the beating of the monkey tom-tom?” – as you are anything approaching the sublimity of Lay All Your Love On Me or The Winner Takes It All. Just as the Dolce & Gabbana-designed costumes rework the band’s 70s wardrobe in a tasteful way – evincing a restraint that Abba themselves seldom deployed in their heyday – so the music, performed by a live band, is occasionally faintly tweaked from the recorded versions the vocals are taken from: Voulez-Vous feels punchier and more raw.
By the time the show hits its finale with Thank You For The Music followed by Dancing Queen, any lingering sense that you’re not actually in the presence of Abba has dissolved. It’s so successful that it’s hard not to imagine other artists following suit – you strongly suspect the surviving members of Queen will be on the blower to Industrial Light & Magic before the week’s out.
However, Ulvaeus has already issued a warning to anyone planning on following Abba’s path to resurrect a deceased star: “It is better to do it with someone who is alive because … the measurements in the cranium are the same.” It’s a warning that’s going to go unheeded: access to cranial measurements or not, Voyage is the kind of triumph that’s destined not merely to run and run but be repeatedly copied.