Cast in Steel isn’t a bad title for an album, but all things considered, the guys in a-ha might have considered calling their latest record Bare Tuller, which is what Google tells me is the Norwegian equivalent of “just kidding.”
As some of you may recall, these jokers told us they were hanging it up in 2010, booking an alleged farewell tour and even titling the subsequent live album Ending on a High Note: The Final Concert. The band’s retirement came after a well-received second run of records that kicked off in 2000, when they broke a seven-year hiatus to reunite for their sixth album, Minor Earth Major Sky, and came just as their brand of precisely melodramatic synth-pop was being mined for fresh veins of platinum by bands like Coldplay — a moment of triumph, in other words, that once seemed rather unlikely for a trio that initially appeared destined to be relegated (however unfairly) to one-hit wonder status.
Not a bad way to go out, really. And yet earlier this year we received word that a-ha were back together for a new album and tour — which is, once again, being spun as their last. “We are not getting back to stay together,” insisted singer Morten Harket. “We’ve agreed to come back for a set period: one album, one tour. It’s a great opportunity and allows us to write another chapter.”
“If you have more to say,” added guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, “why wouldn’t you say it?”
Fair enough. But like it or not, any record that rises out of this type of scenario is held to a higher standard; just as you’d like to think the band had good reasons for splitting up, you’d want to assume the impetus behind any reunion would be at least twice as compelling — unless you’re a cynical creep like me, in which case you might be just as likely to let out a lip-fart and picture three former bandmates adding up the sales receipts for their solo projects and drawing three separate but identical conclusions.
The reality with Cast in Steel is somewhere in the middle, I suspect. The band members describe a set of recordings that developed organically, but the liner notes read less like the story of a truly collaborative effort than one of an album that spins on separate creative axes, with each of the band members developing songs with their own partners and cobbling the tracks together at various studios — none of which would matter one whit if the end result sounded like the work of a creatively vital band.
Does it? Your answer to that question may depend largely on how desperately you want to hear a new album from a-ha in 2015, and I say that not as a cynical creep but as a guy whose first self-purchased piece of vinyl was the band’s debut LP. Morten Harket was born to send his falsetto soaring mournfully over synths, and his elastic voice helped set a-ha apart from the legions of similarly structured mid-’80s bands; I played the bejesus out of Hunting High and Low as a moody 11-year-old, and although I was less enthusiastic about the more experimental (read: not very catchy) strains of their sophomore outing, 1986’s Scoundrel Days, I continued to keep track of their releases from a respectful distance, and appreciated the way they continued to tinker with their sound while remaining identifiably…a-ha.
Cast in Steel fits into that pattern, but in a weird way: It’s a record cut from the same sonic cloth the group’s woven over the years, but the colors are faded and the seams are rough. While they never happen as often or as closely together as you’d like, you can hear plenty of audible glimmers of the band they once were, and the result is series of songs that have most of the form of an a-ha album but not enough of the function. It’s all definitely pleasant enough to listen to, in its tastefully stolid way, without ever feeling like the work of individuals brought back together by an inexorable creative pull.
Again, however, your mileage may vary. If you were sad to see a-ha (allegedly) depart in 2010, Cast in Steel might offer you an entertaining postscript to their story; if not, you may find that it makes for a perfectly serviceable soundtrack to a late afternoon spent staring wistfully into the middle distance. Either way, we can presumably now begin setting our watches for the next reunion tour.