ABBA - Arrival - Review
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critics' view

The four Swedes—two couples, Agnetha and Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid (aka “Frida”)—first invaded British shores in 1974 at the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton with their winning entry, “Waterloo”; the United Kingdom awarded ABBA “nil points” on the night, making their subsequent domination of our charts one of the sweetest revenges outside the pages of The Count Of Monte Cristo. They properly conquered in 1976 with their Greatest Hits, the year’s biggest-selling album and the second biggest-selling album in Britain of the 1970s (beaten by Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water which had the advantage of a six-year head start). The same year saw a triptych of UK number ones: “Money, Money, Money,” “Fernando,” and the unstoppable “Dancing Queen,” which sold over a million copies and spent six solid weeks at the top. That the latter’s parent album, Arrival released in October 1976, should consolidate their stronghold was a fait accompli. By 1977 ABBA were unshiftable, omnipresent and commercially invincible.

Arrival was their fourth studio album but the first to forge an identity in tandem with its introduction of their soon-to-be iconic trademark reversed B logo. Its three predecessors—1973’s Ring Ring, 1974’s Waterloo, and 1975’s ABBA—had been a series of costume-changing forays and false-starts through folk-rock, glam, light ballads, and novelty rock‘n’roll. Nobody yet regarded ABBA as an albums band until the million-selling phenomenon of 1976’s Greatest Hits propelled them to the forefront of the market. An intriguingly-misnamed 15 track compilation from an act who’d so far made the UK singles charts just five times, to British audiences Greatest Hits acted as ABBA’s equivalent to a debut album, its success highlighting a major transformative shift: from the bedroom turntable at 45 rpm to the family stereo at 33 1/3. ABBA could never have succeeded as a teen pop act alone. The coup of Greatest Hits owed much to its appeal to the same age group as seen on its cover: four adults sat on a park bench in contrastingly coupled yin and yang of romantic bliss and collapse.

If Greatest Hits certified ABBA as undisputed superstars, on Arrival, the first album to follow it six months later, they finally looked like superstars, the kind who travelled in private helicopters like the one on the cover in which they’re cocooned with curiously cool expressions. The distance between this image and the terrestrial park bench portrait of Greatest Hits can be measured in light years. They could be The Tomorrow People. They could be from Tatooine. They could be four superbeings itching to escape some spooky spherical Phantom Zone. They are unmistakably other. At their best, as on Arrival, ABBA are as mysteriously out-there as Bowie, as rococo as Phil Spector, as unbearably sad as the Smiths. At the centre of their infinitely bright star is a throbbing black mass of pain. “The Winner Takes It All” from 1980’s Super Trouper is still the debate-settler that ABBA are pop’s greatest tragedians, hailing as they do from a land of inherently fatalistic art, from the films of Ingmar Bergman to the face of Greta Garbo. The pagan Swedes of old believed that the end of the world was a coming inevitability they called “ragnarok.” ABBA are the sweet echo of that same ancient stoic pessimism. Ragnarok‘n’roll.

The second track on Arrival and ABBA’s only US number one in April 1977, “Dancing Queen” is one of the greatest pop records ever made because, like so many of the greatest pop records ever made, it throws multiple reflections. Its surface beauty and emotional depth is wholly dependent on the ear of its beholder. For some, it’s an emancipatory cry of joy. For others, a bawl from an abyss of sorrow. The song’s first discernible human sound is a suspended, exhaled “Ooo-ooh!” It could be a dove-like coo, or it could be a suppressed sob. Perhaps this is the song of someone who wants to be Esmeralda but knows they are Quasimodo; the harrowing dream of life outside as imagined by somebody imprisoned indoors. The “dancing queen” could be an isolated young girl alone in her bedroom, too scared, too shy, almost certainly believing herself too hideous to step out into Friday night; her one happiness her unrealistic fantasy that she could find love amongst the beautiful people out on the dancefloor. In this, its darkest reflection, the one directed by Bergman and starring Garbo, “Dancing Queen” is a song about the loneliest girl in the world, a “How Soon Is Now?” in “Rock Your Baby”’s clothing.

It’s safe to say that the ABBA writing team of Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and manager Stig Anderson were not trying to create a “How Soon Is Now?”; the abandoned first verse of its original 1975 demo began with the bubble-gum burst of “Baby, baby, you’re outta sight!” But they were trying to write a “Rock Your Baby.” The rhythm of “Dancing Queen” was directly inspired by George McCrae’s 1974 hit, even if theirs hasn’t quite the same slickness of syncopation. There’s a strange falter, as if the beat is stumbling under the weight of the flamboyant Liberace piano pounding overhead. “Dancing Queen” is almost disco, were it not for that rhythmic limp. It’s clubfooted disco, American R&B as could only be made by white Vikings who didn’t fully understand the instructions.

The power of their music lies in the enigmatic Mona Lisa smile created by similar accidents of mistranslation. As Andersson once stressed, “We are not Anglo-Saxon.” ABBA were four spectacularly talented Nordic persons trying to emulate Western Anglo-Saxon pop. Their ancestral blood was non-Christian, an ice-and-fire race who believed in giants, dwarves and elves, of ancient pagan sagas that inspired Wagner and Tolkien. The members of ABBA could learn and sing in English, but they still thought like Scandinavians. Their phrasings made grammatical sense but their assembly of words were not the natural choices of any lyricist for whom English was a first language.

It may also explain why the biggest-selling album in Britain of 1977 opens with a song about a schoolgirl aching to sleep with her geometry teacher. There is no ambiguity of meaning in the harmonic rush of “When I Kissed The Teacher.” “One of these days,” sings Agnetha, “gonna teach him a lesson alright.” The moral dilemma of this unexpurgated Lolita pop is only numbed by its sheer innocence of delivery. But then “love” in ABBA songs, legal or otherwise, rarely runs smooth. “My Love, My Life” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” are two adjoining sides of the same heartbroken prism, the words of both virtually interchangeable. “I know I don’t possess you/So go away, God bless you” wails the first. “Breaking up is never easy I know/But I have to go,” sighs the second. In ABBA songs people are always going, never to but forever away.

None of the lyrical protagonists on Arrival are happy. “Carrie,” the heroine of the neurotic disco-ragtime “That’s Me,” is a self-deprecating mess. The woman in the daft “Dum Dum Diddle” is ill with sexual frustration, literal second fiddle to her maestro lover who’d sooner pluck his Stradivarius. The narrator of the Cabaret-inspired “Money, Money, Money” yearns for a rich Trump-style suitor, but “if he happens to be free, I bet he wouldn’t fancy me.” Men, too, get just as raw a deal on “Why Did It Have To Be Me?,” Björn’s barroom boogie about a sap who loses his heart, all but one lap-steel and two fingers of whisky short of vintage Hank Williams.

And then along comes Jack the Ripper. “I am behind you, I’ll always find you,” screech the banshee sisterhood of Agnetha and Frida on the predatory “Tiger,” a fabulously unsettling psycho-pop thriller of urban dystopia and Droogish violence not so very far away from Diamond Dogs: “The city is a nightmare, a horrible dream.” “Tiger” is an alarmist horror story of metropolitan evil as imagined by folk who did most of their songwriting in an idyllic country cottage on Stockholm’s island peninsula. It’s also one of the better demonstrations of the sonic voodoo that occurs in the vacuum between Agnetha’s and Frida’s voices, a skull-rattling counterpoint when their respective wavelengths collide to create a near-supernatural vibration.

This same nuclear fusion of blonde soprano and auburn mezzo-soprano is why all attempts to cover ABBA songs end in failure. They are literally inimitable. ABBA’s music lands on the ear in bold strokes, but it arrives there through the most meticulous construction. They are not European impressionists but Northern renaissance masters, building up the sound layer by layer, one coat at a time with fanatical precision. Hence the glow in the opening notes of “My Love, My Life,” an ethereal cosmic tone evoking the fellow Scandinavian-blooded Gustav Holst. Hence the Valkyrie choir of “Dancing Queen” detonating its apocalypse of goosebumps. And hence why Arrival’s closing title track feels like being serenaded to sleep by God.

“Arrival,” the song, is colossal. Less a song, since there are no words, than a glacier of sound, the eerie buzz of divine light as it harpoons through stormy clouds. “Arrival” was named after the title of the album had already been decided. As originally written it was called “Ode to Dalecarlia” in honour of the Swedish folk province where, as late as the 19th century, the local culture still communicated in medieval runes straight out of The Hobbit. Melodically, “Arrival” is therefore ABBA at their most inscrutably Nordic and, to Anglo-Saxon ears, at their most other. It is a hymn from beyond the stars.

Simon Goddard
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