Lifeline of the Sublime A-ha – Part 2

A-Ha LogoA-ha reconvened at the end of the Nineties, discord perhaps dissipated through their various individual projects. American Grunge and the Brit Pop scene had come and gone and the charts were dominated by a new crop of teen pop acts, inoffensive indie bands and coffee table singer-songwriters. The radio-friendly rock-pop sheen of A-ha’s new material ostensibly blended in, but on inspection it adorned material of superior craft and characteristic lyrical depth. Comeback single ‘Summer Moved On’ was a hit around Europe which held all the stately drama of old while setting another record, for the longest note held in a European Top 40 pop song (20.2 seconds of Morten announcing his return!). The album Minor Earth Major Sky also features ‘Velvet’, first recorded by Waaktaar-Savoy’s other band Savoy, which portrays some withdrawn, inscrutable ice queen who expresses herself by other means (“Her eyes when she’s smiling will never reach home, but hear how she sings”). Its tender sentiment, beautiful melodic motif and beguiling breathy female vocals make it one of my very favourite A-ha moments. Brilliant too, with an altogether different tone, is ‘The Company Man’, a withering portrait of a vacuous record exec focused solely on the bottom line, doubtless informed by A-ha’s own tribulations in the industry: “Give us something easy to sing to, give us something simple to cling to, something we can all understand, said the company man”. I first heard the track from behind the counter of a music chain where I was working as a twentysomething after an initial burst of music biz interest in my own material had ended in frustration. I appreciated the irony, and the song.

Their seventh album, 2002’s Lifelines, was brimming with compositions, with all three band members pitching in. Indeed the winding, elegiac title track, another European hit lushly orchestrated with chiming 12-string arpeggios, showed keyboardist Magne Furuholmen emerging George Harrison-style as a songwriter as assured and profoundly affecting as Waaktaar-Savoy. Meanwhile Harket contributed the cool, catchy electro-pop of ‘Cannot Hide’ which brought to mind Daft Punk. Also excellent, and rather unusual, is Waaktaar-Savoy’s ‘Did Anyone Approach You?’. This blackly comic, largely spoken monologue, in which the withdrawn victim of some ill-defined early trauma is implored to open up, is a leftfield slice of funky lo-fi electronica to rank with anything the young hipsters could dream up.

These releases had reestablished A-ha in much of Europe, though the US seemed lost to them by now, but it was 2005’s Analogue which substantially renewed their fortunes in the UK. Furuholmen’s plaintive ‘Celice’ was its lead single in Europe,  but in we Britain got ‘Analogue (All I Want)’, reworked from Waaktaar-Savoy’s offering ‘Minor Key Sonata’ by Max Martin, Swedish hitmaker for Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears among others. While possibly an uncharacteristic concession to label pressure for a big radio hit, it retains some of the original’s sparse, surreal charm while grafting on a simple yet stirring and undeniably catchy chorus hook. The tactic paid off, giving them their first UK Top 10 hit in nearly two decades; I recall first hearing it on the playlist of a local commercial radio station – no mean feat among the Simon Cowell-derived pop fodder of the day – followed by the anodyne DJ announcing, “That’s A-ha, back for 2006”, as if they’d been away since 1986.

This mid-Noughties period was the high point for a certain sort of indie band offering mid-tempo, often piano-led arena torch songs, some of whom were starting to name A-ha as a formative influence. Indeed, parts of Analogue itself seem superficially to adopt that same sensibility and sound. Except that the melodies are more distinctive, the harmonies more inventive, and the songs are actually about something. For instance ‘Cosy Prisons’ (which clipped the UK top 40 in remixed form) sounds at a distance like just such a plodding minor-key lament. Yet rather than settle for offering indistinct impressions of personal angst, it precisely nails the stultifying, corrosively cloying nature of a certain sort of pampered, macrobiotically-inclined Hollywood lifestyle: “Your transatlantic shopping spree, your health forever guarantees, organic-bio-life’s a breeze in cosy prisons”. In that bloated pre-crash, celeb-obsessed climate, ‘Cosy Prisons’ critiques a narcissistic consumer culture which many other contemporary voices were busy participating in. Meanwhile the reflection and nostalgia of ‘Keeper of the Flame’ and ‘Summer of Our Youth’ upgrade the nebulous ruminations of others to hard-won insights of the wizened elder statesman.

The notion of A-ha as melodious ancestors to the Coldplays and Keanes of the moment had become something of a received truth by the time of 2009’s Foot of the Mountain, and the parroting of this line in coverage of the album may have helped make it their first UK top 5 entry since Stay on These Roads. Yet in reality, aside from the semi-acoustic, orchestral stylings of the elemental, euphoric ‘Foot of the Mountain’ and the downbeat, confessional ‘Shadowside’ (both singles), much of the album actually marks the start of a march back to the sequenced synth-pop which had made their name. Stand-out tracks ‘The Bandstand’ and ‘What There Is’ update that formula with the beats and textures of the burgeoning Eighties-referencing EDM scene while holding the same tunefulness and emotional punch as before – at once fresh and somewhat classic-sounding.

Then, just as A-ha’s legacy and their continued relevance were being widely recognised, they announced a farewell tour, and a seemingly definitive return to individual projects. Yet thankfully this turned out to be another case of (sorry) Cry Wolf, as 2015 saw them reconvening once more for the release of a tenth album Cast in Steel, to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of their initial breakthrough. Though it was again preceded by a lush, string-laden radio single, the imploring ballad ‘Under the Makeup’, the bulk of the album was an even more concertedly electronic  affair, and thus profited intentionally or not from the continuing vogue for Eighties vibes. While arguably lacking the sonic and stylistic variety of mid-period works, it is a cohesive album strong in sonorous melodies and impassioned sentiment, most rousingly on the title track. ‘Forest Fire’ brilliantly recaptures the foot-tapping urgency of Hunting High and Low’s uptempo moments, while ‘Objects in the Mirror’ and ‘Door Ajar’ display their familiar bent for a quirky idiom, an observational lyric.

A-ha’s enduring popularity thirty years on is not hard to fathom, and beyond inherent musical quality it may at this point represent a confluence between the nostalgia of those of us who were with them at the start and an appetite among young music fans for authentic and meatier progenitors of the Eighties-influenced contemporary pop they know. In contrast with A-ha’s mass appeal, which while never quite scaling the heights of their early fame has proved consistent, the attention and regard of the media and critics has been slow in coming, and for once can surely be attributed to pure talent and craftsmanship, as well as artistic variety and a measure of tenacity. “Wipe your tears away, there’s never a forever thing”, sang Morten Harket in a highlight from Stay on These Roads. But with the invention and influence of the best New Wave pop now seeming to cast that period as something of a new Sixties, A-ha’s contribution and the oeuvre they have since produced seem finally to have immortalised them in the canon of pop music.

…Not a bad punt to have put my pocket money on.