“ABBA Voyage,” the superstar Swedish band’s “live comeback” concert via cutting-edge digital technology, is the kind of spectacle so novel that we don’t yet have a vocabulary to describe it.
For now, “amazing” will have to do.
Holograms have acquired a reputation for creepiness and tackiness, thanks to shows from the dead by singers Whitney Houston and Roy Orbison. But judging by “ABBA Voyage,” digital technology has triumphantly caught up with aspiration.
This production, which landed in a purpose-built structure, christened the ABBA Arena, in East London in May 2022, has to be seen to be believed. Body doubles, one-hundred-sixty high-tech cameras, a thousand or so animators, and terabytes of computing power (courtesy of George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic) have captured the movements and expressions of ABBA’s four individual band members, now all in their seventies, creating wholly lifelike avatars for this amazing recreation of the band in concert in their prime, circa 1979.
The arena, which comfortably holds 3,000 people, resembles a squat hexagonal space-ship, conveniently parked across the street from a Docklands Light Rail stop. The press is calling it a “digital concert residency,” a phrase that, when searched online, so far exclusively returns references to “ABBA Voyage.” It’s remindful of the way early talking movies were referred to in The New York Times as “audible pictorial transcriptions.”
Indeed, this does feel like something new.
Directed by Baillie Walsh, “ABBA Voyage” is a platonic ideal of a concert recalled in joyous memory, the same sequence of 20 classic songs (19 and an “encore”) goosed along by a 10-piece live band, five days a week, presumably to give the pixels a rest.
This unlikely 2022 ABBA odyssey comes four decades after the band unofficially disbanded in 1982, after a decade of international hits. The comeback accompanies a surprise new album of the same name, released last year. Two of those new songs are included in Voyage, boosting the sense that this isn’t merely a trip down memory lane — though it did dip into the nostalgia banks by commemorating the band winning the 1974 Eurovision song contest for their home nation Sweden with “Waterloo.”
The band name is an acronym of the member’s first names: Female singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and male musician-songwriters Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. With two inter-band marriages and divorces, the band suffered as much internal romantic heartache and drama as Fleetwood Mac.
ABBA bowed out on a critical high with the well-received 1981 release “The Visitors,” then were relatively forgotten for the remainder of the decade. Male musicians Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson took up “Chess,” and the female singers Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida) went on to so-so solo singing careers.
But two things happened in 1992 that resurrected their popularity and gained the band that previously elusive critical acclaim: the classy greatest hits package “Abba Gold” was released, as was the four-song cover album “Abba-esque,” by the British synth-pop duo Erasure.
As if easing the audience into the possibly disorienting novelty of the situation, “Voyage” began with “The Visitors,” the icy title track of their once last album (now next-to-last album).
The avatars move realistically on stage, the costumes shimmer, and the forms cast realistic shadows, with the stage images projected on big vertical screens. These aren’t flickering 3-D holograms but tight, true-to-life computer graphics, with tricks of lighting and perspective wholly selling the fantasy you are watching ABBA on stage, though the faces on the tall monitors betrayed blank looks at times.
Behind-the-scenes photos show the group having no business looking so cool in what Dr. Evil might call their “quasi-futuristic” gear — the form-fitting motion-capture suits Anna-Frid referred to as “transmitter doodads.”
The show was aerated with natural-feeling pauses for “costume changes” and a puzzling video interlude, each nonetheless giving a “real” feel to the proceedings, along with the live band.
I’ll keep the concert’s fixed set list a happy secret, though it’s easily found online. But it’s surely no secret that ABBA’s biggest hit, “Dancing Queen,” brought the mature-trending audience to their feet. A sense of near-rapture ruled as classics rolled on for 96 minutes. And just to remind us that they are mortal, ABBA throws in a relatively humdrum anime to accompany two classic songs.
But all the spectacle would just be a clever nostalgia trip without the timeless substance and emotional heft of the songs themselves. If music producer Phil Spector wrote little symphonies for the kids, then ABBA constructed sometimes-silly, sometimes-poignant-pop for adults. Filing out, I overheard a man confess to being moved to tears. Although connecting the band’s mature sound to “Swedish melancholy,” as some critics do, might be taking things a bit far for the creators of “Dum-Dum-Diddle.”
So what’s ABBA’s secret sauce? Musicologists argue there aren’t many good ABBA covers (though many attribute the group’s second act to the Erasure release) and that the songs don’t really work as elevator music, suggesting it’s the production choices that elevate the sometimes-trite material into magic. The genius is in the craft.
“Voyage” is scheduled to run through May 2023, a time frame that surely will not satisfy the appetite of the band’s legions of fans. Significantly, the arena was built for transport, so it could theoretically continent-hop wherever ABBA is beloved, i.e., everywhere.
Perhaps when space travel makes its own quantum leap, the ABBA-ship will fly off to conquer other worlds. Or it could remain here on earth as a time capsule representing a pinnacle of 20th-century musical achievement, though the Arena’s timber interiors may have to be swapped out for something more durable.
If the descriptor “digital concert residency” doesn’t stick, there are other words that apply to the show: poignant, stunning, transcendent. Whatever these concerts end up being called, one can see them rewarding popular bands, those willing to invest the time and energy, with a long tail of rapturous fan attention and an income stream even after their touring days are over. Someday, not even mortality will be able to stop the music.
This may open up another dimension of disconcerting issues: Will we become a world of nostalgia addicts, watching ghosts in a machine? “ABBA Voyage” is a magical novelty, but if such technologically refined marvels become commonplace (so-called “deepfakes,” which digitally replace the likeness of one person with another, are already shockingly true to life), will we ever again tolerate mere flesh-and-blood human presentations, with all their missteps and delays and imperfections? Immerse yourself in the wondrous “ABBA Voyage,” but let’s be wary of a future where digital equivalents outstrip the real thing.
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