Thursday, 8 September 2011
63 Scoundrel Days - A-ha
Tracks : Scoundrel Days / The Swing Of Things / I've Been Losing You / October / Manhattan Skyline / Cry Wolf / We're Looking For The Whales / The Weight Of The Wind / Maybe Maybe / The Soft Rains Of April.
I think this was purchased on a trip to Manchester.
The previous album I was discussing came about largely through the video director Steve Barron. He had an even greater influence on the career of this band and not entirely for the good. There are those who still view A-ha as mere pretty boys launched by a spectacular video and not worthy of serious attention, a misconception fuelled by the suicidal decision of their deadly serious songwriter Pal Wakktar to pose with a guitar ( like Heinz Burt ) when there wasn't any guitar on the track. "Scoundrel Days" ( a number two hit in the UK ) should have put an end to all that but initial prejudices can be hard to shift.
I wasn't all that enthusiastic about "Take On Me" partly perhaps because it was one of the records that kept Red Box's Lean On Me from reaching number one but their subsequent singles had won me over by the time this came out.
"Scoundrel Days" opens with its title track. An urgent synth riff ( very similar to Depeche Mode's Black Celebration earlier in the year ) leads into a story of urban paranoia mining similar territory to fellow Scandinavians Abba's The Visitors. We don't know who Morten Harket is running from but this sure as hell isn't teenybop music. The occasional duff lyric due to their not-quite-there -yet grasp of English - "never knowing nothing else to do" - doesn't matter when delivered in Harket's effortlessly impressive tones. In the chorus he soars stratospherically above the strings and ( presumably ) Pal Waaktar's economic bass. Alan Tarney buffs up the sound to give a modern pop sheen.
"The Swing Of Things" is even better. An intense self -examination by the taciturn Waktaar over whether he should engage with the world or cocoon himself in domestic bliss, the music echoes his dilemna with spiky urgent verses giving way to a neurasthenic chorus. Harket harmonises with himself, a stern and throaty vocal beneath a sweet falsetto to underline the competing voices theme.
"I've Been Losing You " was the first and best single from the album. It introduced rock guitar for a more muscular sound than on their first LP. Featuring another self-lacerating lyric from Waaktaar and impressive drumming from sideman Michael Sturgis it grinds towards a tuneful chorus with Harket punctuating his vocal with grunts and sighs. There's also a nifty false ending.
Unfortunately, the quality dips with the next three songs downgrading the LP from great to good. The priority seems to be demonstrating their versatility and the songs suffer for it. "October" starts with 45 seconds of ambient electronica and sound effects; that and the lyric about an urban autumn suggest The Blue Nile. However the actual song owes more to 60s MOR with its parping Herb Alpert horns ( albeit synthesised ) and Harket's breathily whispered vocal. It's just plain dull, bumbling along at mid pace without chorus or drama.
"Manhattan Skyline " closes side one, a schizophrenic song with Magnes Furuholmen's stately chamber pop verses giving way to a bersek hard rock chorus written by Waaktaar with crunching power chords and abrasive synth screeches reminiscent of Genesis. The song seems to be about a painful parting and Harket holds it together with a towering vocal. When I've been to see them it seems a real crowd-pleaser but it's always left me a bit cold, never quite transcending its cut and paste conception.
Side Two opens with "Cry Wolf" which was the most successful of the three singles. Waaktaar's song expanded on a line of verse from his fiance Lauren Savoy which is spoken by Harket in the brooding intro framed by Sturgis's expert drum fills. Unfortunately that's by far the best bit of the track which turns out to be a re-write of Thriller with a boring chorus and lame lyric about a werewolf. It's competent disco pop but disappointing.
Just as you're thinking the album is a front-loaded letdown the band get back into gear with "We're Looking For The Whales" which again starts like a then-recent Depeche Mode song, this time Stripped. The song is fairly impenetrable ; it could be addressing the biggest stain on their country's history (well, until this summer that is) but that doesn't fit with the chorus line about "a little bewildered girl". Whatever, it's an irresistible slice of uptempo synth-pop whose only fault is that it gets to the chorus too quickly and has to keep repeating it. Luvkily it's a good one.
"The Weight Of The Wind" owes quite a lot to New Order's techno-pop sound with its judddering synth-bass and chattering electronic percussion but it's put to the service of a great song. Waaktaar's lyrics seem to be addressed to himself , an instruction to get over some hang-up. Harket's in commanding form here, light and plaintive in the verses then roaring into a stunning chorus.
"Maybe Maybe" , Furuholmen's first solo composition is relatively lightweight pop with jokey lyrics - "maybe it was over when you chucked me out the Rover" - but disarms you with another glorious melody and first rate Harket vocal.
The LP concludes with "Soft Rains Of April" a favourite of the old Anne Nightingale Request Show ( before she became the Betty Turpin of the rave scene ), It encapsulates everything that's great about them, an affecting song ( this time about homesickness ) with a gorgeous melody, inventively arranged and beutifully sung. After a pounding drum intro it settles into a stately synth ballad with a lengthy and lovely middle eight ( with slight echoes of the thematically similar Band On The Run ) before Harket comes back in like a volcano before ending the LP with a whispered "over".
This isn't quite the best A-ha album - as we shall see - but has more than enough to silence the doubters. They were the last of the self-sufficient post-punk teen idols ( Police, Adam Ant, Duran Duran) before Bros led us down the road to Simon Cowell . For that alone they should be savoured.