the complete idiot’s guide to a-ha

Okay, jefitoblog faithful…you’ve stuck with me through Toto and Big Country. Can you handle an in-depth look at Norway’s most successful pop export?

I’m sure many of you think I’ve lost it with this week’s selection. And truthfully, I had planned on doing something else, but what with the release of the new a-ha album, Analogue, last week, I figured the time was ripe for them to get their very own Guide. Snigger and make one-hit wonder jokes if you must — I’m certainly not trying to build a case for the band’s immortality here. But they’ve been around for over two decades now, and their blend of icy European art-pop and catchy, soaring Top 40 melodies can be rightly said to have influenced current critical darlings like Keane and Coldplay.

That may sound like a ridiculous statement if you’ve only heard “Take On Me,” but it’s true. And though the band has certainly been responsible for more than its share of less-than-memorable moments, they’ve also managed to cobble together a rather impressive catalog. Follow along and see if you don’t agree by the time we’re through.


Hunting High and Low (1985)
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Hunting High and Low

For most Americans, this is where the story of a-ha begins and ends; Morten Harket’s cheekbones and a truly classic video propelled “Take On Me” to the upper reaches of the charts in 1985, but neither did anything to ensure lasting success. Which is a shame, because while “Take On Me” is a great pop song, it isn’t a-ha’s best — or even the best thing about Hunting High and Low. Follow-up single “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” (download) is every bit as indelibly catchy as “Take On Me,” and what’s more, it does a much better job of encapsulating the band’s strengths. Where “Take” is a bouncy, slightly moody pop soufflé, “Sun” is equal parts bitter and sweet — listen to the way the cold melodrama of the song’s first moments builds and gives way to that enormous chorus.

It’s a perfect pop song, and for me, it’s where a-ha makes its first case for themselves as something more than just the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. They certainly weren’t the first band to make a few bucks by combining emotionless synths with heart-on-sleeve lyrics, but they dwelled on the edge of either extreme less often than many of their peers. Look at it this way: They weren’t as dour as Depeche Mode, not as relentlessly eclectic as Eurythmics, and not as over-the-top bubblegum as Wham!. The AMG describes Hunting-era a-ha as a cross between The Blue Nile and Alphaville, and though the comparison might be too obscure to ring any bells for most, it’s fairly accurate.

So why weren’t they more successful? Well, they weren’t as dour as Depeche Mode, not as relentlessly eclectic as Eurythmics, and not as over-the-top bubblegum as Wham!. And though they could write ruthlessly catchy songs when they wanted to, they were more often interested in slightly experimental stuff. Though nothing on Hunting is really what anybody would consider groundbreaking, darkly moody ballads like “Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale” (download) were never going to gain any traction on American radio.

Of course, the only songs most people heard were “Take On Me” and “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.,” and Harket made fine Tiger Beat fodder, putting artistic credibility solidly beyond the band’s grasp.


Scoundrel Days (1986)
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Scoundrel Days

So if your group likes to think of itself as a serious band, but you’ve been typecast as lightweights, what’s the easiest way to change your image?

The answer, of course, is “make an ‘art’ album,” which is what a-ha did with Scoundrel Days. Anybody expecting “Take On Me II” — record executives, retailers, dismayed twelve-year-old fans — didn’t really know what to make of this. From start to finish, it’s a fairly defiantly anti-pop record. Where Hunting kicked things off with the instantly accessible “Take,” Scoundrel Days opens with its bleak title track (download):

Was that somebody screaming…
It wasn’t me for sure
I lift my head up from uneasy pillows
Put my feet on the floor
Cut my wrist on a bad thought
And head for the door

Having found that lush New Romantic balladry and machine-driven Europop didn’t necessarily combine to create critical respect, a-ha seemed bound and determined to prove they weren’t just a flash in the pan. In the process, they dealt a harsh kick in the nuts to their commercial prospects — at least here in the States — and altered the course of their career for years to come.

It’s unlikely, of course, that “Take On Me II” would have fared much better, and in the end, it’s decisions like this one that probably helped keep the band around in the long run. And, of course, the album spun off a hit single or two in Europe, most notably the anthemic-albeit-puzzling “Cry Wolf” (download). But it still represented a steep dropoff from Hunting. They couldn’t go on making albums like Scoundrel Days and expect to hang onto their record deal.


Stay On These Roads (1988)
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Stay on These Roads

Hence Stay On These Roads. I haven’t commissioned a formal poll or anything, but if I had to guess, I’d say this is probably regarded by most a-ha diehards as the band’s worst album. In terms of pop gloss, it’s a 180-degree turn from Scoundrel Days, which is neither a good or bad thing on its own; the songs, though, are pretty weak across the board. Even the album’s most interesting moments, like the sweeping title track (download) and the inane “Touchy!” (download), are appealing mostly because of how transparently calculated they are. The title track goes hand-in-glove with the album cover as an invitation to fans who’d left the fold — the old logo’s back, the band’s lovingly airbrushed, the chorus plucks every appropriate heartstring. And “Touchy!” sounds like something you could have heard on any Top 40 station in 1988. They aren’t bad songs, but they seem like rather obvious commercial concessions.

The rest of Roads, unfortunately, doesn’t even hit those limited heights; it’s a collection of wan adult contemporary ballads with titles like “This Alone is Love” and “You Are the One.” It’s impossible to tell whether the band was really shooting for a hit or just low on good material, but either way, American audiences never heard anything from this album (”The Living Daylights,” a minor hit, doesn’t count because it was released the previous year).

Though they continued to enjoy a certain level of success in other parts of the world — which no doubt explained their continued affiliation with Warner Bros. during an age in which plenty of similar artists were cut from the label’s roster — a-ha was a band at a crossroads. They were a pop band, for one thing, and one that had always relied on the heavy synths and generous production that were starting to fall (like most pop bands themselves) out of fashion. They also needed to figure out whether they were willing to sacrifice commercial potential for artistic satisfaction.


East of the Sun, West of the Moon (1990)
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Turns out they were willing to make that sacrifice. Sort of. Though this album opens with a-ha’s final, most desperate grab at an American Top 40 hit, their cover of Howard Greenfield and Carole King’s “Crying in the Rain,” the other ten songs sound more or less like Hunting High and Low plus five years. Not that the two albums really sound alike in any way, but if you listen to them back-to-back, East of the Sun makes perfect sense as an evolution in sound and songwriting. None of it’s catchy, exactly, but a lot of their songs have always relied more on mood than hooks, and this set does a nice job of establishing one.

It also does a pretty good job of striking a balance between the pleasantly mundane, like “Rolling Thunder” (download), and the semi-esoteric, like “(Seemingly) Nonstop July” (download). But most importantly, the album’s stripped-down production proved that the band could leave the ’80s without losing its identity. And look, I understand why East of the Sun, West of the Moon disappeared into a gigantic commercial black hole — as we noted before, a-ha is a pop band, pop bands take a huge risk whenever they stop relying on immediate hooks to carry their water, and this is a fuzzy, sepia-toned snapshot of an album. It isn’t the kind of thing most people would want to listen to every day, or maybe even ever; as a mid-career statement from former Tiger Beat poster boys, though, it just about works.


Memorial Beach (1993)
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Memorial Beach

Wait, did I say Stay On These Roads is a-ha’s worst album? It might be a tie between that and Memorial Beach.

On Roads, the band sounded overly self-conscious; here, they just sound tired. Aside from the majestic “Dark is the Night” (download) and mildly rocking “Between Your Mama and Yourself” (download), Memorial Beach is one long snooze. In the decade-plus since it came out, I don’t believe I’ve ever been able to listen to it all in one sitting without losing track of what I’m hearing. I sit down, turn it on, and next thing I know, I’m four songs in. It’s just one thin, lackluster tune after another.

I gather the band wasn’t completely unaware of this — after releasing the Paralympics theme, “Shapes That Go Together” (download), the following year, a-ha went on indefinite hiatus. Their return was never a sure thing; in fact, for a not-inconsiderable period of time, it seemed as though fans would have to get their new music from Harket’s infrequent solo albums and releases from PÃ¥l Waaktaar’s side project, Savoy.


Minor Earth Major Sky (2000)
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Seven years after the disappointing Memorial Beach, a-ha returned with Minor Earth Major Sky, an album that — while not the band’s strongest — represented a fairly compelling comeback. In hindsight, it was a good time for the band to resurface; their long absence (and longer American commercial irrelevance) notwithstanding, the year 2000 brought a widespread resurgence of computer-assisted pop, not to mention the chart success and critical acclaim afforded the aforementioned crop of new, vaguely a-haesque bands.

All of this, naturally, failed to add up to a-ha’s big comeback in America. Though WEA had some success with Minor Earth elsewhere, Warner Bros. declined to even release it here, meaning that, while the band played to thousands of adoring fans in places like Brazil, most American listeners were unaware a-ha still existed, let alone had a new album out.

It’s too bad. Minor Earth Major Sky is too long and messy to be consistently great, but in spots — particularly the insistent title track (download) and the gentle, lovely “Velvet” (download), they really sound like a band that actually might have needed to come back.


Lifelines (2002)
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The band had taken seven years between its two previous albums, so a-ha fans could be forgiven for a certain amount of surprise at Lifelines‘ release just two years after Minor Earth Major Sky. They could also be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t quite the album its predecessor was. It’s actually a pretty solid album, and overall, a little more consistent than Minor Earth, but it’s missing anything as powerfully well-written as “Velvet” or the previous album’s title track.

Actually, I’ve never really liked Lifelines, but the more I listened to it as I got ready to write this, the more I realized how solidly crafted an album it actually is. I know I said before that pop bands take a huge risk whenever they wander away from the immediately gratifying, but a-ha was 17 years removed from its debut when Lifelines came out — if you can’t trust your audience to spend a little time with you by that point, when can you?

It’s an album of small pleasures that are no less gratifying for their size — from the expertly assembled single, “Forever Not Yours” (download), to the soft one-two punch of the closing ballads, “Dragonfly” (download) and “Solace” (download). If there’s anything wrong with it, it’s that the album is, at fifteen songs, overlong. They’re a good band, but come on — the number of acts on the planet who can carry a fifteen-song album is infinitesimal, and a-ha is not among them. Hardcore fans who stumble on this will take that as an insult, no doubt, but it isn’t meant as one; as the great songwriter Paul Brady once said (and I’m paraphrasing), the great challenge of pop music is being able to say what you have to say and get out in three minutes or less. I’d extend that to ten songs or less.


How Can I Sleep With Your Voice in My Head (2003)
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It’s the live album. We don’t normally include these in the Guides, but since I make a habit of leaving out the big hits, I decided to leave it in — that way, I could toss in this live version of “Take On Me” (download) without breaking any of my unwritten rules.

That’s really the charm of this record, at least for me: Getting to hear the old stuff in a slightly different setting. I don’t think there are many people waiting to hear a-ha unplugged; all the same, their early records really did come with an awful lot of trappings, so listening to new versions of the older songs, like “Take” and “Hunting High And Low” (download), is something like liberating. Other than that, there’s no reason to buy this album — folks listen to bands like a-ha for what they can do in the studio, not how well they can handle a stage (although it is pretty impressive hearing Harket tackle those high notes all these years later).


Analogue (2005)
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The reviews for Analogue thus far are decidedly mixed — they love it in Norway, not so much everywhere else — but I like it. There’s really nothing outstanding about the album, and first single “Celice” is basically a pale retread built out of spare parts left over from every other latter-day a-ha single, but on the whole, it’s a solid entry in the catalog. More than anything else, I guess I think it’s interesting to see how the band has refined and developed its sound over the course of 20 years. How many other bands from the class of 1985 are still making music? How many are still making music this good?

And that’s what it is — it’s good. Not great, but eh, how great were the Stones on their 20th birthday? And how many bands could have made this kind of career out of obstinately refusing to be what they were originally supposed to be?

Those are big questions, I guess, which does a disservice to both Analogue and a-ha itself. After it’s all said and done, they aren’t the type of band that’s meant to be mentioned in the same breath as rock royalty like the Rolling Stones — but neither are they deserving of the punchline status they’ve been accorded here. Analogue won’t change that, but the next time you hear Keane on the radio, think about how comfortably songs like “Holyground” (download) or “Make it Soon” (download) would fit alongside it, and how cruel a mistress pop stardom so often is.