Thirty years on from their memorable introduction to the pop-sphere with the Hunting High And Low LP (featuring the still astounding song and video for ‘Take On Me’), Norwegian trio a-ha subsequently blitzkrieged the charts with a run of eight top ten hits in three years, including the theme tune to James Bond film The Living Daylights.
Morten, Paul and Magne are back once again with the release of their first new material in six years and tenth album, Cast In Steel, albeit it is again a prelude before another hiatus, as front man and perennial dish Morten Harket has stated: “one album, one tour”. Has absence made the art grow stronger?
Titular opener ‘Cast In Steel’ immediately has Harket’s sonorous distinctive vox showing up sop-meisters Snowplay and Keanethlete for the “rote-emote really gets my goat” they are. ‘Under The Make-up’ has echoes of The Moody Blues both in essence and Harket’s soothing, dulcet tones when exhorting: “let all the worry vanish away”. Evidence that like Justin Hayward, his voice has lost none of its lustre.
‘The Wake’ is poppy and peppy like Maximo Park with a “can’t change the one you love” bewailing. ‘Objects In The Mirror’ and its deployment of the “rear view mirror” trope and the past is closer than you perceive would be clichéd in lesser talented hands. The metaphorical ‘Door Ajar’ and its “there’s always a way back in … should you decide” message is further evidence that like Scandi-kin ABBA, sometimes the best English pop is created by those who peer in – an outsider’s view of an insider’s self.
‘Living At The End Of The World’ has the ambience of Vangelis crossed with Morriseyesque crises of identity, an existential cry of “there’s something I know, we are not who we are told we are more than we’ll ever know”. It’s fair to assume that he’s not pondering the work of Erich Von Daniken, but, engaging in intensive interior introspection. In style.
‘Mythomania’ has the group back to reclaim their throne and kingdom from the plunderers of history, the false-memory-magpies assembling patchwork aural tapestries with no heart and even less soul. Best of all is the propulsive ‘She’s Humming A Tune’ (“to keep herself from thinking”); a darker sound, ghostly and bookended by a crackly acoustic thrum coming across as a mix of U2’s ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ and Kraftwerk’s electro-sonics.
The past is a constant thread throughout, be it “familiar smiles”, “fate it fades away” and “what comes after what was” and in these musical times where everyone’s past haunts them ever more, it takes something special to (re)convince. Although an album of no radical departures nor great surprises, a good a-ha album is better than most bands’ peaks, and overall this is an affectionate nod to both a romanticised pop past and group heyday. The collective cultural memory dictates standards and quality with only the best surviving. a-ha? Oh yeah!
Cast In Steel is out now via Swingalong Ltd. / We Love Music.