When a-ha bowed out in 2010, with their wittily titled Ending On A High Note Tour, the decision was commendable for a number of reasons. Primarily, because there was truth in the title; having recently celebrated their highest charting album for years (#5 in the UK, their best in over two decades) with a collection of songs harking back to the electronica of their early days, their career really was at a peak, as well as coming full circle. (That’s not even a shape.)
Foot Of The Mountain (2009) was the first time that a-ha sounded like most people’s perception of a-ha since the last time many of those people had listened to a-ha. With a focus on synthesizers and drum machines, it was a celebration of those arcade-like melodies which first drew listeners to the band upon the release of ‘Take On Me’ in 1985. In fact, it seems that since then and until ’09, they had been trying to escape the sound, with releases before and after their seven year hiatus (1993-2000) sounding everything and nothing like the #1 US hit.
Even second album Scoundrel Days showcased chief songwriter Paul Waaktar-Savoy’s (known then as Pal Waaktar) skills, whether on soft rock singles ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ and ‘Manhattan Skyline’ or brooding, atmospheric closer ‘The Soft Rains Of April’ (co-written with keyboardist Magne ‘Mags’ Furuholmen). While the combination of Morten Harket’s chiselled looks with an undeniably impressive vocal ability were clearly part of the sell, a-ha’s songs were well crafted tracks with obvious potential for a career beyond teen magazines and animated videos.
Recognition from acts including Coldplay and Keane seems obvious with the film-theme-that-never-was-a-film-theme ‘Stay On These Roads’, and even more so on first post-comeback track ‘Summer Moved On’; a string heavy masterpiece, featuring a beyond impressive vocal from Harket. It’s album (2000’s Minor Earth Major Sky), was critically acclaimed, with the sounds they tried so hard to break into in the early’ 90s suddenly clearer and more natural than the earlier work had ever been.
While East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon (1990) scored a couple of hits, including a cover of The Everly Brothers’ ‘Crying In The Rain’, the darker tones and themes of 93’s ‘Memorial Beach’ distanced them from all but a few of the original fan base. Which may have been part of the plan, but failed to bring the more epically scaled tracks (including ‘Cold As Stone’, at 8.20) to a big enough audience. Finally, almost a decade on, people were older, wiser and ready to listen to the band beyond the poster.
Further material continued to showcase the band’s knack for writing four minute slices of pop genius, with Magne and Morten taking more prominent roles on 2002’s Lifelines and 2005’s Analogue. With the former, a new lease of experimentation was offered, with stronger hints of the synthesizer apparent on ‘I Will Survive’’s Scandinavian cousin ‘You Wanted More’ and the French disco feel of ‘Cannot Hide’, while slower tracks echo The Beatles (‘White Canvas’) and contemporaries Coldplay (‘Time & Again’).
With help from hit-maker extraordinaire Max Martin (Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys), Analogue’s title track was reworked, giving the band their biggest British hit since the ’80s. Of course, the band were now firmly an albums band, however second single ‘Cosy Prisons’ (which just broke the top 40) provided their most stunning craft yet, with Furuholmen taking the credit this time for a track highlighting the simplicity intended with the album’s title, as the majority of the tracks focussed on piano, guitar and that iconic vocal.
In some ways it was frustrating that the band’s decision was so abrupt, so when it was announced that they would reunite to headline Rock In Rio (25 years after they broke records for “most purchased tickets to a show”) it was a double celebration, with a new album (Cast In Steel) and tour to follow. Sure it’s slightly breaking the rules to come back so soon, however, when considering how many rules they broke for three Scandinavians with one of the biggest, purest pop hits of the ‘80s, it makes every release after their debut even more notable.