ABBA: ARRIVAL (1976)
1) When I Kissed The Teacher; 2) Dancing Queen; 3) My Love, My Life; 4) Dum Dum Diddle; 5) Knowing Me, Knowing You; 6) Money, Money, Money; 7) That's Me; 8) Why Did It Have To Be Me; 9) Tiger; 10) Arrival; 11*) Fernando; 12*) Happy Hawaii.
Another perfect title for ABBA's first of two perfect albums in a row. "Perfect", here, does not necessarily mean "beautiful" or "great" or even "timeless" — simply that, as far as the record's goals and ambitions are concerned, they are satisfied with perfect perfection. On Arrival, there is no "filler"; not a single note is, in fact, out of place. Huge (and well-deserved) hits alternate with lesser numbers in a way that's respectful for the latter and profitable for the former. And, by 1976, ABBA were finally in full control of their bodily functions when it came to songwriting.
Even if I hated this particular form of glossy Euro-pop — and, normally, I do, because I have no choice — I would still be forced to admit that the guys who wrote these melodies were no ordinary hackmen. Ordinary hackmen do not usually make their verses as memorable as their choruses, and they do not strive to get their middle eights to sound like entirely different mini-compositions gracefully wedged in between the verses.
When you've settled in, you start noticing that Benny and Björn's hooks, particularly the ones they employ on the hits — like the piano runs in 'Money, Money, Money' or 'Dancing Queen' — are extremely simple, sort of nursery rhyme level-simple (hardly a coincidence that one of the songs, 'Dum Dum Diddle', basically is a nursery rhyme), and that may make you ashamed of falling for these melodies instead of, let's say, Keith Jarrett. My advice would be to fuck it. There is a time for the beauty of Keith Jarrett, and then there's a time for the admirable simplicity — and efficacy — of 'Money money money, must be funny in a rich man's world'.
They certainly could have employed (what with all the money that'd started rolling in) a better set of lyricists. The slightly on-the-edge "high school giggle" of 'When I Kissed The Teacher' and the explicitly and obviously grim "depression" of 'Knowing Me, Knowing You' (their first 'parting' song, foreshadowing the band's personal problems to come) are probably the only tunes on here that could scramble for at least a C+ on the Singer-Songwriter Scale of the decade; everything else ranges from the thoroughly trite to the unintentionally hilarious ('Dig in the dancing queen' is quite notorious, but I'd say that the cake is taken by 'And if I meet you, what if I eat you?' from 'Tiger'). However, I have seen people dissing these lyrics as if this somehow discredited the whole experience — and some of these were the same people who, the very next moment, would begin colorfully headbanging to AC/DC.
In terms of arrangements, Arrival and The Album are, in between them, the best illustrations of the default ABBA sound after they'd stripped away all the shortcomings, but before becoming derailed with the disco wave. Layers of acoustic guitars, usually, with a simple or electric piano accompaniment, and moderate usage of electric guitars and strings and, sometimes, accordeons, reflecting Andersson's Swedish folk music influences. In the end, it is stuck somewhere in between the opposing poles of hard rock/power pop, the heights of which they never even try to scale, and the American folk-rock scene, which some of the songs clearly resemble, but regularly trump in terms of sheer pop energy (after all, Arrival is not a meditative album à la James Taylor — it's dance music, pure and simple).
As a result, the songs seem quite lively even today, and show plenty of soul from under the gloss. For many, the album peaks at the end, when the incompetent lyrics fade away and the title track greets us with its heavenly waves of Nordic melody — a choral mantra of such bliss that even Mike Oldfield could not resist from covering it. Following the general line, 'Arrival', like everything else, is not a technically demanding piece — basically just one melodic line brushing against you over and over again, but every good band needs an anthemic mantra to its name, and 'Arrival' has a good chance of making the shortlist of candidate melodies to welcome earthly saints to the gates of Heaven (at least in the "pop" category).
Special honourable mention: 'Why Did It Have To Be Me', arguably the best Björn-sung number in the catalog, blissful vaudeville which begins as if they were painfully trying to disguise it as rock'n'roll, but then just drops all the pretense altogether in favour of the fat brass riff and the pompous chorus delivered by Frida-on-Fire (her campy punch onstage in the version in ABBA: The Movie is so grotesque that it has to be seen to be disbelieved). It simply embodies everything about the band that you might want to consider good, and everything that you might want to consider bad, if you still have any idea of what these words mean. I do not pretend that I do, yet I am certain that Arrival will go on finding admirers until the day we're done with as the human race, and, in keeping with that, I gladly put my thumbs up.