In a way the exchange was pure Abba: easygoing, but undergirded by serious concerns. Another chance for debate came up when the two men were discussing their Abbatars. Andersson remarked that Ulvaeus had requested a change to his digital alter ego’s hair because there is only so much 1979 realness anybody can take. When I remarked that it was a great way to rewrite a little bit of history while still being faithful to its spirit, Ulvaeus replied, with a slight smile, “Yes, it’s such an interesting existential question.” (Ulvaeus, known in Sweden for his commitment to atheism and humanism, enjoys such questions, later asking, “So, do you think the American constitution is strong enough to withstand another Republican president?”)
The Andersson-Ulvaeus songwriting bond has withstood intraband divorces and the pressure brought on by critical scorn. (For those who have forgotten: Andersson used to be married to Lyngstad, Ulvaeus to Faltskog.) They have been writing together nonstop since meeting in 1966, and their post-Abba collaborations include songs for Andersson’s band as well as the musicals “Chess” and “Kristina from Duvemåla,” an epic about 19th-century Swedish immigrants to America that includes the rare showstopper about lice.
While the division of labor used to be fluid in the 1970s, it is now much more clear-cut: Andersson comes up with melodies and records demos in his Skeppsholmen lair then sends them to Ulvaeus, who writes the lyrics. Asked how elaborate those demos are, Andersson volunteered to play “Don’t Shut Me Down,” and walked over to his computer. Then he couldn’t find it among his dozens of files, searching “Tina Charles” since the Abba song has a slinky vibe like one of the British singer’s hits.
He eventually unearthed not the demo but the finished backing track, and cranked it up on the immaculate sound system, providing a great example of how crucial Faltskog and Lyngstad’s voices are to Abba’s sonic tapestry.
“All the various successful groups since the ’70s have had more than one singer,” Andersson said, mentioning Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, alongside Abba. “You hear Frida sing one song and then you hear Agnetha sing — it’s like two bands. The dynamics are helped immensely by the fact that there are two. And then when they sing together …”
Their harmonies on the “Voyage” album bear the unmistakable Abba stamp, even if the register is a bit lower than it used to be. Age alone does not account for the difference: “We used to sort of force them to go as high as they could on most of the songs because it gives energy,” Andersson said.