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Creative Sensemaker

Gimme, gimme, gimme the actual Abba

Thursday 9 September 2021

After nearly 40 years, the Swedish quartet have returned – but not in the way you’d expect


Spending £150 to dance in a room with a few dozen strangers might sound like I’ve plumbed the experience economy to new depths, but that’s what I’ve done. There’s a bit of poetic omission in that sentence, I admit. Four Swedish musicians in digital form will also be present. I’m talking, of course, about Abba Voyage, the new concert experience that will see Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid digitally recreated in a custom-built Abba arena in east London.

Every weekday lunchtime, Tortoise hosts an Open News meeting on Twitter Spaces. Last week, discussion turned to the return of Abba, who, along with their upcoming tour, have their first album on the way for nearly four decades. Our meetings are meant to be a place for civilised disagreement, but we couldn’t find a single person who disliked the Swedish quartet. Even I have firmly come round to them, and I was a car-sick child who had to listen to loops of Abba Gold on stuffy family trips that had me muttering, “Mamma Mia, here I go again…”

Abba the band might be universally loved, but the jury’s out on their digital avatars. I say avatars because that’s what Industry, Light & Magic (ILM) calls them. ILM is a Walt Disney-owned company that has produced special effects for hundreds of films, including Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and the Back to the Future trilogy. The company insists that it’s not making the sorts of holograms that have been used, controversially, to resurrect dead musicians in recent years. Instead, ILM says, it is creating digital characters animated with performance capture techniques – with the movements and expressions captured from the Abba band members. 

Björn, Agnetha, Anni-Frid and Benny in motion capture suits at the ILM studios

But here’s the rub. Digital Abba won’t resemble 2021 Abba, four septuagenarians doing wonderfully for their age. They’ll be singing new songs, but they will look like they did in 1979. “People have often talked about whether you can create either people who have lived in the past, or people when they were younger,” explained the creative director of ILM in the hour-long video that launched the project. “And we actually create Abba in their prime.” 

Perhaps digitising old people isn’t sexy or practical, but you can’t help but think that ILM has missed a trick here. In 1979 Abba had not split up. Only one of the two couples that make up the band had divorced (and at the start of that year). And none of the younger generation, who have drawn from Abba their own life-shaping stories of joy, heartbreak and car sickness, were even motes in the universe. 

The thing is, a lot of Abba’s songs are sad – and the passage of time deepens their meaning. In ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’, written by Björn and sung by his ex-wife Agnetha, the two lament missing their eldest daughter’s childhood. It was heartbreaking when it was written, when Björn and Agnetha were in their thirties and their daughter was seven. But now, as the pair advance into old age and their daughter nears 50, with three kids of her own, there is added poignancy – whole generations slipping through Björn and Agnetha’s fingers. You’d pick up on that if you could see their wrinkles, but you won’t in Abba Voyage.

Agnetha with her and Björn’s daughter Linda while on tour in North America, 1979

And, for that matter, won’t it feel strange to hear the new songs too? One of them goes: “For I know I hear a bittersweet song in the memories we share… I see it now, through all these years, that faith lives on.” Memories shared, years spent – sung by avatars who haven’t experienced them yet.

All of this isn’t to say that I’ll dislike the concert – far from it. It’s just that I don’t feel as though I’m really seeing Abba. What I’ll be watching instead is some strange memory, transplanted into a present that doesn’t resemble 1979 in the slightest. “Sometimes I wish that I could freeze the picture and save it from the funny tricks of time,” Agnetha sings in the final seconds of ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. In a way, along with her bandmates, she’s found a way of doing just that.

Abba perform the song ‘Waterloo‘ to win the Eurovision Song Contest held in Brighton, 1974

General sale tickets for Abba Voyage were released on Tuesday at 10am BST. The concerts will run from May to October 2022 in the purpose-built Abba Arena in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London. Tickets are still available for some dates. Abba Voyage is then going international, touring the world until 2026. 

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Watch

Annette (general release)

French director Leos Carax and art pop duo Sparks have combined to make a bizarre rock opera that feels like a demonic take on A Star Is Born. Henry (Adam Driver) is an egotistical and offensive comedian whose star is waning. His partner Ann (Marion Cotillard) is an adored soprano. Together, they are a celebrity couple who become parents with the birth of their daughter Annette, a mannequin with an angelic voice. The cast sing their way through a baroque tragedy that covers all manner of horrors, including little wooden Annette becoming a fawned-upon celebrity in her own right. Adam Driver is at his booming and looming best, but the performance of Annette at the surreal ‘Hyper Bowl’ show steals the movie. Genius, or for the birds? You decide.

Wildfire (general release)

Starring Nora-Jane Noone and Nika McGuigan, who died of cancer in 2019, Wildfire is the stunning debut feature of Cathy Brady. The film concerns two sisters, Lauren and Kelly, who are reunited in their Irish border town after Kelly goes missing for a year. Lauren’s relatively quiet life is upended by the return of Kelly, as the pair’s collective childhood trauma binds them in destructive co-dependence – with personal and political shadows never far away. Wildfire feels as though it’s in search of a satisfying ending, but perhaps the point is that time never forgets.

Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League (BBC Two)

Before 1992, football was terrible and full of hooligans. Or as the Sunday Times put it in the 80s, it was a “slum sport played in slum stadiums” and “increasingly played by slum people”. Then media mogul Rupert Murdoch (owner of the Sunday Times) came along with a lot of cash. The Premier League was formed, Man United became the dominant force, and suddenly the beautiful game was, well, actually beautiful. That is what the first episode of Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League would have you believe. Except many would argue the Premier League has ruined football – or at least whatever meritocracy there used to be. This documentary is fascinating precisely because of the slick way it skates over the destructive elements of the 1992 cash injection, unsurprising when the documentary was made by David Beckham’s production company. This, one might reflect, is how history is written.

And thanks to Tortoise member, Nancy Brinton, for recommending Falling for Stradivari, a new documentary about the violinist Janine Jansen. She writes: “Went last night, compelling watching a young musician at the top of her game, teasing out the character of some of the very finest instruments ever made. Also watching how two major musicians, Janine Jansen and Anthony Pappano, work together to make a performance.”


Read 

Four Thousand Weeks – Oliver Burkeman (Vintage Publishing)

4,000 weeks. That, as Oliver Burkeman puts it, is the “absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short” amount of time the average human has on earth. But this isn’t some self-help treatise on how to do 50 things before 5am. Instead, Burkeman questions our obsession with time management, arguing that our attempts at uber-productivity reflect fears about our fleeting existence and leave us busier and emptier – the kicker being that a good life means giving in to time. Just do what matters to you, Burkeman argues. After all, life may be brief, but love is long.

The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice – Shon Faye (Penguin)

“The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society” wouldn’t feel like a bold opening were it not for the boogeyman status that trans people have had foisted upon them. As it is, Shon Faye avoids rehashing the debates that plague online discussion and gives a clear-eyed account of what it’s like to be trans in a society that is structurally and politically unaccommodating to non-binary people. Her analysis of how trans people experience housing, healthcare and other elements of society is compelling and well-argued, as is her central conviction that helping the trans community live freer and happier lives would do a whole lot of other good, too.

Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Little, Brown Book Group)

Colson Whitehead, the double Pulitzer Prize winner from Manhattan, is in scintillating form in this thriller about a furniture salesman and small-time crook called Ray Carney who gets pulled into attempting an ill-advised heist at the opulent Hotel Theresa. The three-act book is set in Harlem in the late 50s and early 60s, but there’s a Dickensian feel to the cast of pornographers, gangsters and bent cops. Harlem is recreated beautifully, its vibrant streets controlling the action as much as any one character. A novel that is funny but has real weight too.

Listen

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – Little Simz

The fanfare of percussion and brass that opens Sometimes I Might Be Introvert serves as an invocation for an album that is mammoth in its ambition and near perfect in its delivery. The record, made with the producer behind the anonymous collective Sault, is music as cinematic odyssey. Little Simz’s flow is exhilarating and unpredictable, matched only by the scale of the album’s soundscape, which weaves funk, neo-soul, orchestral braggadocio… and narrative interludes by The Crown star Emma Corrin. Cast the unexpectedness of that feature aside – it kind of works – because this is one of the albums of the year.

Any Shape You Take Indigo De Souza

Existential and euphoric, Any Shape You Take is an impossible-to-pin-down album spanning indie rock, grunge, and synth pop. “The duality of my brain in general is I’m a very depressed and super anxious person,” De Souza told NPR last month. “But I also have so much joy in my body and really default to joy, in a way, to cope with those things.” That figures. Raw, mournful lyrics are married with upbeat music, bringing about a tremendous album in which experimentalism, thankfully, never gets in the way of emotional potency.

Rest in Blue – Gerry Rafferty

Ten years after the untimely death of Gerry Rafferty from liver failure, Rest in Blue stands as testament to the Scottish musician’s enduring appeal. A mix of new songs, covers, and re-recordings, the album was assembled by Rafferty’s daughter from demos dating as far back as the 1970s – with many of the synths erased to highlight Rafferty’s voice. The ear of Rafferty’s daughter shouldn’t be overlooked: the album is remarkably cohesive given its piecemeal composition. The closer (a rework of ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’) is the best part, if only for Rafferty’s laughter in the outro: the nicest way to remember a troubled talent.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,

Xavier Greenwood
Reporter
@XAMGreenwood

Photographs Mike Prior/Redferns via Getty Images, ABBA/Instagram, Ibl/Shutterstock, Olle Lindeborg/AFP via Getty Images, Amazon Studios, Story Films/BBC, Scope Pictures/UGC, Modern Films, Asterisk Films