COVID has done a number on us.
We know it, our friends and family know it, and while I could be ascribing more sentience that is deserved, the virus knows it too.
As we climb our way tentatively out of the hole the pandemic has dug for us, and start to reengage with life again outside of four, well-defined walls, we can be thankful that a number of music artists, like those featured here, are giving voice to what we’re feeling.
As therapy goes, it’s pretty damn good, and highly listenable too.
“Midas Touch” by Child of the Parish
A collaboration between between brothers Ben and Tom Vella and Hungarian artist Pius Bak, Child of the Parish create music that is the end result of “a love of disco, house, and acid rock with a passion for the comic work of Katsuhiro Otomo and Alan Moore.” (genius.com)
Dedicated to having as much fun as possible, songs like “Midas Touch” offer a beguiling mix of disco and psychedelic-influenced pop with animated videos that suggest anime meets Gorillaz.
It’s incredibly inventive stuff to listen to and to watch, with CLOUT describing “Midas Touch” as “boasting a rousing and colossal chorus that brings untold levels of pomp and circumstance to an already wildly ambitious sound … [featuring] “a electro-psych core with rapturous reverb-heavy harmonies, baroque-tinged flourishes, and more than a hint of ’80s extravagance with its dramatic drum fills and searing, climatic solo.”
It’s epic, melodic, escapism that reflects a desire to get away from the stark realities of the last two years, says Ben.
“It’s fair to say my range of inspiration shrunk a bit during lockdown, trapped in the house in the middle of the countryside, but actually writing about the pandemic felt like the last thing in the world I wanted to look at, so the music and themes came back to good old escapism.” (CLOUT)
“Silver Balloons” by Little Boots
Known to her family and the UK tax department as Victoria Christina Hesketh, Little Boots, who has landed a gig as one of ten musicians in the back-up band for ABBA’s virtual concert starting in May 2022 in London, has always had a gift for distinctive upbeat pop that exude as much warmth as they do danceablity.
“Silver Balloons” is a perfect example of this artist’s gift for arrestingly offbeat pop that was birthed in the disconcerting weirdness of the COID pandemic.
“’Silver Balloons’ is in many ways a metaphor for all the cancelled plans and parties of lockdown, all of the disappointments as one by one we watched many of our hopes and desires burst like shiny balloons at the end of the night. All we have left is each other; coming together and holding tight to hope is the way we have all seemed to get through the last couple of years. Sonically, I was listening to a lot of classic 70s songwriters during the making of this record while really putting the piano at the centre of everything, so you can hear echoes of Elton John, Carole King, The Bee Gees, even Wings. The piano and vocals in this track also really remind me of one of my all-time favourites Saint Etienne.” (Northern Transmissions)
The song is also part of a growing trend among artists seeking creative and professional independence to create their art as they see fit.
“I’m also especially proud of 100% writing and producing this record myself, and it being totally powered by my fans via their support on Patreon.”
The track is irresistibly catchy, a song that have you pushing repeat like someone manically happy to celebrate the reemergence of hope again as currency in a broken world.
“Neon Nights” by Annie
Norwegian artist Annie, gifted with innately infectious pop sensibilities and a voice that is all fairy floss and emotiveness, is a delight to listen to.
Hot off last year’s album Dark Hearts, styled as a comeback of sorts, she is back with an EP Neon Nights, from which is drawn the title track, a collaboration between Annie and Jake Shears which sparkles with dancey upbeat persona and some sage observations about what it feels like to want to go back to a happier time in life and be back with that someone special when they were more than your friend.
Philosophical and wistful, “Neon Nights” beautifully mixes together musical lightness with some dark lyrical melancholy, a distinctly Scandinavian approach that makes for captivatingly listenable pop that is both escapist and thought-provoking all at once.
Granted, we know most good pop is about putting your heart and mind in park while dancing your troubles away, but “Neon Nights’ makes a compelling case for doing them together, something that elevates the song from being the usual dancefloor fodder that clogs the airwaves and makes it repeat-listen special.
“idk why the light’s on” by Akurei
Aussie artist Akurei has released a sublimely transportive piece of upbeat pop in “idk why the light’s on” that came from a wholly expected place.
“‘idk why the light’s on’ is the result of some carefree playing, chopping, stretching, and sampling from earlier this year. It’s nice to me -that it started out of a place of exploration and fun, rather than the ambition and rigor that I usually approach song-writing from. Lyrically, it’s a little bit of a reflection on part of being human – we say things we don’t sincerely mean, we see things that aren’t there, we try at things sometimes, we don’t try at things sometimes. It’s about trying to overcome that, I think.”
As well as sporting some danceably listenable music, the song has some real world sobering observations about life when life isn’t quite kicking goals in the way you want it to.
Sometimes I say
Things I don’t mean but I need to
Say a lot of words but they’re see through
(say a lot of words but they’re see through)
Fell down on my face
Got a sore jaw but got no bruise
Waking up late, feeling real blue
(waking up late, feeling real blue)
A marriage of a dreamily catchy beat and insightful lyrical intent, ‘idk why the light’s on’ is a heart-opening, thoughtful look at life set to music that lifts you as you listen to it.
“I Don’t Wanna Talk (I Just Wanna Dance)” by Glass Animals
British indie band Glass Animals – Dave Bayley, Drew MacFarlane, Edmund Irwin-Singer
and Joe Seaward – have a knack for crafting memorably cool pop.
Case in point is “I Don’t Wanna Talk (I Just Wanna Dance), which creatively addresses what it’s been like to emerge from the suffocating strangeness of the COVID cocoons we’ve all been inhabiting for the last two years.
“Talking is great, don’t get me wrong. But this pandemic has made so many of us look inwards in a way we maybe haven’t before,” Dave Bayley says of the song. “The uncertainty in the world and the inability to go out and create new memories makes you dig deep into the past. It really fed people’s deepest insecurities and rattled our foundations in so many ways. Relationships changed, friendships altered, and self-confidence was warped. I spent a lot of time talking to my dog, but even more time talking to myself in my head, which was keeping me up all night, and my friends and family were doing the same.
“It felt like we were all put in a pressure cooker, but there was no way to let out the steam. That’s what this track is about – that pressure cooker exposing and expanding so many cracks, but struggling to fill them in and decompress. I want people to switch their devices off, put this song on, close their eyes, and have that release for a moment.” (DIY Mag)
You heard the man! Set everything else aside and dance – it will do you a world of good, especially with songs this good to soundtrack your escapist moment.
If you had told me even a year or so ago that I’d be spending the days since Friday 5 November, 2021 listening to a brand new 10-track ABBA album, I would have thought you completely and utterly mad.
While the existence of two songs, “I Still Have Faith in You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down”, was known about as far back as 2018, along with a proposed virtual concert tour with holograms filling in for the four members of the group, the idea of an album was simply a fanciful one at the time.
There were whispers of course as the original release date for the two songs was delayed again and again that ABBA had recorded five songs, then eight then ten but this was all conjecture or sources talking and really it was hard to be certain that anything approach a full ninth album would ever materialise.
Then all of a sudden in late August, social media came alive with a gold-hued glow and talk of ABBA Voyage was suddenly everywhere, with the group’s official promotional channels coming alive with the imminent release of two songs and the broadcasting of a special held on the night of Thursday 2 September London time – 2.30 or so Australian time; if you needed proof I still love ABBA, it was the fact that I planned to get up to see it all live on YouTube without a second’s hesitation – where it was announced that a purpose-built arena was being constructed in the English capital for a series of concerts starting in May 2022.
As emotional events go, this was right up there, and I will admit I was equal parts excitement and nostalgic, crying through “I Still Have Faith in You, the first new ABBA song I had heard since 1993 when “I Am the City” was included on More ABBA Gold, and grinning like the cat who got the Swedish cream in “Don’t Shut Me Down”.
ABBA were back, they were really back, and with an album, a concert that used motion capture technology – the four members, all in their seventies, spent five weeks delivering a concert so younger 1977-ish AI-driven versions of themselves could bring the concert alive – and a special that united ABBA fans the world over in a way I hadn’t seen in decades.
So, what of Voyage, the first ABBA album in 39 years? Was it worth waiting for or is it a faint cry of the group at their prime?
Happily, it is very much ABBA as they were and yet very much as they are now; Benny and Björn still have a knack for heartfelt melodies and startlingly incisive dark and light mixed together lyrics while very much reflecting their post-ABBA (well, not so much anymore, I guess) penchant for musicals while Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s voices, while missing the top knots of youth, still possess a rich, moving emotionality, blending as they always did in the most perfectly harmonious of ways.
One thing that is clear, lyrically at least, is that the album, as you might expect from people forty years down the line from their 1981 release, The Visitors, is full of far more mature musings, filled with the kinds of insights that will be familiar to someone of a certain age who, with the benefit of hindsight is able to more sagely view failed relationships, broken dreams, new possibilities and the way life hasn’t always met expectations.
It’s beautifully introspective writing that sees Björn at the height of his lyrical prowess and Benny as adept at summoning up exquisitely listenable pop as ever, with every incisively revealing word, weighted with the experience of lives now well lived and well advanced, give vivaciously affecting meaning by Agnetha and Frida who always sound like they aren’t just singing but they are living and breathing every last emotion.
I have now had time to listen to each of the songs separately and in album order over the last week, and thought it was a good time to pen some thoughts on what each of the songs say to me, and how I have reacted to them, away from the initial rush of emotions on Friday morning when I attended a Zoom-staged listening party with other ABBA fans from around the world, all of sharing in the wonder and joy of this most unexpected of gifts – new music from our favourite group.
“I Still Have Faith in You”
The first of the new tracks to be aired, against a backdrop of ABBA old and new – the clip intersperses old footage of the band in their heyday with their ABBA-tars which will perform the concert spectacular starting next year – this track moved me to tears. Not simply because it was so emotional to hear new music from ABBA after close to 40 years but because the song addresses the tenacity and longevity of life, of hanging in there with faith and trenchant belief against all odds. It is a spine-tinglingly beautiful piece of music, sung with real empathy and understanding by Frida, later joined by Agnetha, that is as much the story of the group as it is the fans who stuck close to them, and life itself. This song is the album in a nutshell.
“When You Danced With Me”
Sporting a distinct highly-danceable Celtic jig vibe, this song continues the ruminative that percolates through “Voyage”, a thoughtful album that looks back on life and towards its current iteration and muses on how we may come and go from old friends and lovers but there is always a link. In this track, an old boyfriend has come home and Frida wonders if he’s back just for the “village fair and the music” or if he misses dancing with her? It’s nostalgic wrapped up reflectively with current longing and it warms the heart with thoughts of palpable “what ifs?” that can help but occupy the mind of anyone who’s lived some life.
ABBA have never done a Christmas song … until now. Both Agnetha and Frida, to a fragilely gorgeous track that harkens back in sound and lyrical intent to “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room” (and perhaps a musical allusion to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), glory in the simple joys of children on Christmas morning as they unpack “stockings full of nice little things”. Adding in a children’s choir from Stockholm is a master touch that infuses the song with so much Christmasness it will make you feel all warm and cosy and loved. Is it a bit cheesy and cutesy? Sure, but who can begrudge that at Christmas which has all the feelings, something ABBA capture perfectly in this sweet moving and emotionally substantial track.
“Don’t Shut Me Down”
The second of the September lead singles, this song is pure classic ABBA. That’s to be expected in a sense since Benny and Björn are at the helm now as they were back in the Seventies and early Eighties but they have changed a lot in 40 years and so expecting a new track to be easily able to be slotted into any of their later albums might be a tad presumptuous. But “Don’t Shut Me Down”, possessing a thumping chorus and ABBA’s classic mix of hopefulness and rueful reflection of past relationship failures, and achingly beautiful verses, full of lyrical and musical intensity, quietly and movingly expressed, feels at once classically ABBA while very much sounding like the result of 40 years of life having been lived. Quite simply the best track on a very good album.
“Just a Notion”
Originally recorded in 1978 during the sessions for Voulez-Vous, and only ever heard in part on 1994’s “ABBA Undeleted” medley from the Thank You For the Music collection, “Just a Notion” sports a brand new sound and mix with Agnetha and Frida’s original vocals and is a delightful look back at ABBA’s late-Seventies sound. It may not necessarily sit completely well among the other nine other 21st-century tracks but it is a damn good rollicking piece of pop with delicious harmonies and a gushing sense of love impending that wins you over quickly and reminds you why you came to love the group in the first place.
“I Can Be That Woman”
This is one track that is still growing on me although I suspect it may never really own my heart. Another track of present assessment of past relational failures that regrets the “wasted years” and recognises how much they have hurt their long-suffering partner, it is a ballad of introspection and thoughtfulness that never really builds up a head of steam, lyrically or musically. It’s hard-hitting piece of music lyrically married with music that fits the sorrowfully ruminative mood and points to Benny and Björn’s songwriting prowess that aims high but doesn’t really hit the mark.
“Keep An Eye on Dan”
More relational pain but this time expressed in a hauntingly playful song – musically, at least – that zeroes in on the pain of having your relationship break down with a child (that’s never made clear but it seems a reasonable assumption) and having to hand them over for days at a time to a person you once loved and were close to but who is now, in many ways a stranger. There’s so much hurt and can you really trust them? Rationally you know you can but emotions get in the way, all of which find their way into this captivating of existentially angst-filled upbeat pop perfection.
There is a substantial centre to this seemingly lightweight rumination of the place of the bumblebee in our gardens and the world as a whole. Anchored to a resonantly evocative piece of music that is as heavily emotive as Frida’s voice, the song wonders what a world without bumblebees would be like. As Super Deluxe Edition observes, “the arrangement is perfect with military drum rolls, acoustic guitar figures, orchestral flourishes and the odd dramatic timpani”, all of which is “very ABBA”, a beguilingly thoughtful and affecting melancholy and beauty that the group does so very movingly well.
“No Doubt About It”
What an upbeat dose of ABBA perfection this is – it surges from almost the word go, with Frida musing on the way she often freaks out and is prone to making a hash of things (“I messed it up, alright / And there’s no doubt about it”) and yet, how her partner is always there in her corner. Admittedly it does seem the balance is all flowing one way, which any of us in a relationship know is never the case, but then again, there can often be one person in the relationship who’s in a tough place and needs their partner to have their back. They definitely do in this whirl of upbeat wonder which is punctuated by some deliciously resonant “heys” and a heady sense of musical and lyrical momentum that will not be denied.
“Ode to Freedom”
Such a beautiful piece of music! A stirringly thoughtful piece, it comes complete with a meditation on the nature of “odes to freedom” which sound inspiring on paper but often don’t amount to much. It may sound cynical but in reality, it’s more circumspect and grounded, acknowledging the world and life as it actually is, all set to some resoundingly orchestral music that is the perfect, tear inducing end to what is likely to be the last ABBA album. It leaves you thrilled to have this unexpected gift of ten new songs but wishing with all your heart, and tear-filled eyes, that this wasn’t it (something Benny and Björn have recently confirmed).
Excitingly, while Benny and Björn have done all the promotion for Voyage, at the request of Agnetha and Anni-Frid, Frida pop up on Zoe Ball’s radio show this week and it was, as you’d expect, delightful …
But hey, here are the guys too doing their relaxed promo thing which has been a pleasure to watch …