As God is my witness, I had already planned to write this column before Jeff dropped the news in his column, Freshly Unwrapped, that Morten Harket was scheduled to release a new album (Letter from Egypt) this week. I’m a little embarrassed that this is the first I’m hearing of this record, given that I thought I was enough of a fan to have had this pre-ordered for weeks. Damn. I’m just not the a-ha obsessive I used to be, I guess.
a-ha’s one of those bands I discovered late. Like everybody else, I paid attention to the video for “Take On Me,” and possibly not like everyone else, I actually liked “The Sun Always Shines On TV” better than their signature song. But while my younger sister, Jenny, was thrilling to the sounds of Hunting High and Low in 1985, I just couldn’t be bothered. Actually, that’s almost certainly why I couldn’t be bothered. After all, who wants to admit that their little sister discovered something cool before they did? Still, I must’ve at least been paying a little bit of attention, since I distinctly remember seeing the video for Scoundrel Days‘ “Cry Wolf” on MTV in ’86 and thinking it to be pretty cool. It still wasn’t enough to sway me into the band’s camp, though. That wouldn’t happen until their third album, Stay On These Roads, when they contributed the title track to the 1987 James Bond flick, “The Living Daylights.” By this point, however, America couldn’t be arsed to keep up with a-ha anymore, and although the song itself proved to be a minor hit, the album most certainly was not.
Predictably, this is exactly when I came on board and decided to champion the underdog, asking, “Are you people crazy? This album is great!”
Obviously, I’d soon come to discover that it was the weakest of their three albums by a considerable margin, but as it turns out, this was the perfect time to latch onto a-ha, as they were preparing to embark on a reinvention of their sound, leaving behind the more obvious pop songs and transitioning into a more moody and melancholy sound. This, too, would fail to captivate Stateside listeners, which is why East of the Sun, West of the Moon (1990) and Memorial Beach (1993) remain seriously underrated classics, at least to my ears. It’s also why I had to spend the big import bucks to score a copy of Wild Seed, the debut solo album…well, in English, anyway…from a-ha frontman Morten Harket.
Harket had teased fans about a solo career as far back as 1993, when he contributed a cover of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to the soundtrack of “Coneheads,” and since that scored US release, there was every reason to hope that it would pique enough interest to get Wild Seed released here…until “Coneheads” flopped at the box office, that is. Between that, the disappointing sales of Memorial Beach, and the fact that the name “Morten Harket” meant neither jack nor shit to the average American, it really never had a chance of seeing the light of day in the US.
Once I finally secured and spun a copy of the record for myself, I was particularly intrigued with the opening track (and first single), “A Kind of Christmas Card,” which sounded nothing like the established a-ha sound, not even the more recent version of that sound. This was definitely a guy who was stepping outside his usual sound in an attempt to show his diversity. Not that there weren’t songs on the record that could’ve passed for latter-day a-ha tracks, but the one that sounded the most overtly commercial (“Stay“) wasn’t even released as a single; instead, Harket went with other melancholy tracks like “Spanish Steps” and “Los Angeles.” And, again, it’s not like the vocals don’t immediately give the songs away as being by “the guy from a-ha,” but things are definitely way more downbeat. (“Lay Me Down Tonight” could serve as a companion piece to The Smiths’ “Asleep,” for God’s sake.)
Anyone who thought Harket was just a pretty face fronting a-ha will quickly be able to tell from Wild Seed that he had as much to do with their stylistic changes as anyone else in the band…and if you’re like me, the songs will find you wanting to run out and order his new record post-haste.