For a band that was only active for a single decade (1972-1982) ABBA has lingered in the worldwide consciousness in an enviable way. Exiting on top has meant the Swedish quartet isn’t saddled with the usual late career flops and embarrassments, frozen in time all tuneful and beautiful (well, the girls – pop has rarely had two bigger troll-looking fellows like Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus in a single band). As such, they are a prime nostalgia goldmine, the ideal stuff of audience participation musicals and tribute bands – a gleaming, unsullied, and frankly innocent type of music that neatly conforms to a ballyhooed never-really-was memory of an idealized past. And this dynamic is abundantly clear on their fab 1976 global breakout album Arrival, where the white jumpsuit clad foursome – appealingly rounded out by focal point female singers (and, at the time, romantic partners of said trolls) Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad) – swooped in on an unsuspecting pop planet in a helicopter under gorgeous skies.
There is something so wonderfully unhip about Arrival, a song cycle focused on crushes and very teenage heartbreak and angst delivered by songwriters well into their twenties. It’s a world where kissing the teacher is charmingly scandalous and completely devoid of the career ruining lawsuits such activity would spark in the modern age. For lack of a better word, Arrival is sweet in a wholly non-ironic way. Happy Days was hitting its stride in its third season in 1976, and the appetite for a shiny, simpler yesterday was strong. While a total myth, there’s not always a great deal of logic to cravings, especially ontological ones, and ABBA delivered a 10-track smooch to infatuation and the inflated importance of withering romance. And they delivered this album the same year as AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, The Ramones’ self-titled debut, Eagles’ Hotel California, Bob Dylan’s Desire, Patti Smith Group’s Radio Ethiopia and Led Zeppelin’s Presence. Just as rock was surging forward – more feral and cynical than ever – ABBA hustles in to feed us cotton candy.
But lord above, it is such tasty candy! Andersson and Ulvaeus are classic craftsmen, and these songs are models of clockwork efficiency. Every element is tight – the singing gorgeous, the sentiments artfully universal, and the whole thing rolls along like a well-oiled stage musical – something the pair later tried their hand at with Chess. Critics are quick to laud folks like Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren and Randy Newman with “Master Songwriter” kudos but the ABBA boys rarely make this list, and I’d posit the reason is their lack of darkness. Even the sad moments on Arrival and elsewhere in their catalogue lack much gravitas. No one is sitting at home cutting themselves to “Fernando” or “Take A Chance On Me,” but that doesn’t diminish the lasting power of an Arrival jewel like “Dancing Queen.” It is inarguably one of THE greatest singles of all time…and if you don’t think so then try and write a song that is still played all over the world daily almost 40 years after it was released. As easy as it is to dismiss the Eurovision Song Contest from a distance, ABBA’s 1974 win with “Waterloo” marked them as a band that understood how to deliver music to the masses, and Arrival is the high water mark in their catalogue that exemplifies this idea.
There is a goofy charm to Arrival that fills the listener’s veins with a fizzy elevation. As punk-marked and increasingly curmudgeonly as this writer is, this album remains a favorite sing-a-long go-to choice since discovering it as a child during that glorious bicentennial year. That sweetness we spoke of is infectious, a catalyst to sluff off some portion of one’s cynicism and croon the words without irony while shimmying like their living room was a vintage European discothèque.
I’m rarely at my most exposed or downright silly than when I am belting out “My Love, My Life” in the shower with wet-eyed sincerity. While usually nostalgia’s enemy, Arrival brings out the pre-teen in me, the one who still believed in archetypal love and who appreciated the dear value of longing and loss with an innocent heart. It’s a brief high but one as warmly terrific as one’s initial experiences with necking and hand holding, as well as the bittersweet sting of one’s first goodbye to love – big stuff buried deep inside us scooped out with a sure hand by this talented group.