Some bands just don’t get their due until they’re gone. Or, in the case of a-ha, almost gone. Late in 2009, the long-running Norwegian pop act announced it would split following one last tour. Suddenly, a band whose last four studio albums were not released in North America at all was getting the “25th Anniversary Limited Edition Deluxe Remaster” treatment, via these discs (available in the U.S. exclusively through Rhino’s website). A greatest hits compilation from 2004 was finally given an American release, too. For the recording industry, the past can’t come too soon.
That’s not to suggest a-ha’s first two albums, Hunting High and Low (1985) and Scoundrel Days (1986) don’t deserve a fresh listen. A big part of the reason the band eventually gave up on America is it never escaped the shadow cast by “Take on Me” and that music video. a-ha were conveniently labeled a “one-hit wonder” and filed away in the folder marked “1980s synth pop”. Never mind that they actually had a second major hit with follow-up “The Sun Always Shines on TV”, or that they were a fixture on the rest of the world’s charts for years. In 1991, a-ha played before a paying audience of almost 200,000 in Brazil, a world record. Yet by that point, they couldn’t buy a hit in America. Live by the MTV Award, die by the MTV Award.
In the meantime, Hunting High and Low has become a landmark or time capsule of 1980s pop, depending on your vantage point. The big hits alone are two of the most thrilling, indelible songs of the era. Not much more needs to be said about “Take on Me”, except that if you haven’t given it a listen in a while, you owe it to yourself to experience that impossibly giddy synth hook and Morten Harket’s ultra-falsetto once again. “The Sun Always Shines on TV” is as heavy as “Take on Me” is light, a genuinely tense arrangement barely containing the melodrama, big drums, and heartbreak. U2 inadvertently nicked its chorus for the refrain to “Beautiful Day”. Morrissey is on record as a fan, and it’s easy to hear why. There’s something more sincere and substantial at work than most pop pap of the era.
That impression holds for about half the songs on Hunting High and Low. The title track is as beautiful and windswept a pop ballad as you’ll hear. Even a lesser track like “The Blue Sky” renders naïveté listenable and snappy. “I used to be confused / Now I just don’t know…,” Harket sings, not the only example of lyrics that are exceptionally smart for a band for whom English is a second language. Still, despite these strengths, too much of Hunting High and Low is too disposable to make it a classic. “And You Tell Me”, “Love Is Reason”, and several others are little more than short-term synth fixes. Not exactly pap, but not far from it.
Somewhat surprisingly, Scoundrel Days rights the balance, and with style, too. From Harket’s gasp that opens the title track, it’s clear that while they might have looked like fey poster boys, they didn’t need to sound like them any more. Especially in its first half, Scoundrel Days establishes a-ha as a group of grown-up songwriters, toughening its sound without sacrificing the raw emotion or the hooks, cracking live drums leading the way.
The red-eyed fatalism of “Scoundrel Days”’ verse gives way to a soaring, hopeful chorus. “The Swing of Things” follows a ponderous, almost ambient intro with terse, no-nonsense synth-funk. The choice of “I’ve Been Losing You” as the lead single signaled the band’s desire to distance itself from the effortless pop of “Take on Me”. Downbeat, bluesy, dirty, and brass-heavy, “I’ve Been Losing You” is hands down the best James Bond theme that never was; much better, in fact, than the song a-ha eventually recorded for The Living Daylights. “October” layers the resigned, mildly jazzy atmosphere so thickly, you can almost feel the chill of the foggy English night Harket is singing about. And then there’s another a-ha touchstone, arguably the last. Mini-epic “Manhattan Skyline” alternates a soft, earnest verse with an angry, hard-rocking chorus and then goes over the melodramatic top with a love-mad Harket protesting, “How can you say that I didn’t try / You know I did,” sounding very much like he’s about to snap. Mind you, this was before Death Cab for Cutie or Dashboard Confessional were old enough to grow facial hair. The birth of emo or not, it’s thrilling stuff that holds up well after a couple decades.
The second half of Scoundrel Days struggles to keep the momentum going, but is still far above mid-1980s average. “The Weight of the Wind” may be a doppelganger for “The Sun Always Shines on TV”, but it’s a satisfying one no less. In America, “Cry Wolf” managed to scare up some airplay, but only after Scoundrel Days had baffled many who were expecting “Take on Me” II. Still, it’s arguably the band’s strongest album, and it foreshadows the more “adult”, organic direction a-ha would take into the 1990s.
As these reissues are Deluxe Remastered Editions, you get all kinds of remixes, demos, live tracks, and outtakes. Those interested in a-ha’s creative process of the time might marvel at how far some finished tracks veer from the demos, and the remixes are mostly the old-fashioned, hand-edited type. Therefore, they’re somewhat interesting, but hardly essential. The live tracks reveal a-ha to be a professional, dynamic live act. The outtakes from the demos and sessions that yielded Hunting High and Low were previously available as a bonus with the book The Swing of Things. Sound-wise, everything is a bit louder, but generally improved, as you’ll notice bits and pieces that were previously lost in the lousy 1980s digital transfers.
Thus, now that a-ha is coming to an end, these reissues offer a timely chance to hear how it all began. Now, if Rhino would just issue those four 2000s studio albums, 2009’s fine Foot of the Mountain included, the picture would be more complete and accurate regarding this band that turned out to be a lot more influential and substantial than you might have thought.
Hunting High and Low