A-HA: SCOUNDREL DAYS (1986)
1) Scoundrel Days; 2) The Swing Of Things; 3) I've Been Losing You; 4) October; 5) Manhattan Skyline; 6) Cry Wolf; 7) We're Looking For The Whales; 8) The Weight Of The Wind; 9) Maybe, Maybe; 10) Soft Rains Of April.
Regardless of one's overall feelings for synth pop, A-Ha's second album is a major improvement over their first in every department I can think of. The melodies are tighter and more emotional, the singing even more diverse, and, most important, the instrumentation is livelier — no longer are we pursued by synth loops on every corner, as real guitars steal part of their thunder, real strings arrangements sometimes arrogantly tread upon the sacred turf of «heavenly synths», and real, non-robotic drumming from actual drummers nurtures our souls on no less than four out of ten tracks! Now this is what I call good news.
In all honesty, Scoundrel Days is one of the highest points of the «New Romantic» movement. Its closing song may be erroneously called 'Soft Rains Of April', but its overall mood is decidedly autumnal (plenty of rain, though): a shade of elegant depression and desperation spread over urbanistic landscapes. 'Manhattan Skyline' is a great title — most of the time, Harket truly sounds like he is singing from the top of a skyscraper, spreading his vibes throughout the city. But the safety harness is in its due place: A-Ha are not the Cure, and the sadness they sow is never suicidal: you know for sure that, once the show is over, Harket is not jumping, but taking the elevator back to the ground floor's restaurant, for some champagne and caviar to soothe the aching heart.
With that reservation in mind, it is still not a crime to enjoy this mood and at least some of the songs that go along with it. On the title track, Harket goes into full-blown Bryan Ferry mode, and if only he had a clone of Eno and another of Manzanera to go along, together they could have recreated the magic of Roxy Music's Avalon; as things stand, this is a cruder, but still dramatic experience, and the strings are a beautiful antidote for the generic keyboards. So is the melancholic brass backing for 'October', which, along with Harket's hushed vocals, makes me forget the silly pssht-pssht of the accompanying electronic percussion.
The upbeat, danceable singles — 'The Swing Of Things' and 'Cry Wolf' — are at least hardly any worse than concurrent Duran Duran hits; in fact, 'Cry Wolf' is probably the greatest hit Duran Duran ever missed writing, and 'The Swing' places Harket squarely back into David Bowie mood, with excellent results. The only serious misstep here is the overtly cutesy, ska-influenced 'Maybe, Maybe' — two minutes of unnecessary schoolgirl sissiness that nearly ruins the atmosphere they had been so carefully constructing for the previous eight songs.
Fortunately, they then come back to their senses and end the record with one of their very best ballads — 'Soft Rains Of April', every second of which is meticulously calculated, but to great effect. Synth loops are almost drowned out by ominously synthesized orchestration, and Harket is hero again, going from a dreamy, «progressive» delivery on the vocals to a poppier chorus before abruptly ending it all with a gorgeous breathy 'over!' that sort of leaves you wishing it weren't over so soon. Not the kind of wish I would normally expect from an A-Ha album, but there it is.
It is only too sad that, today, most people will probably dismiss Scoundrel Days as just one more generic synth pop atavism, without giving its sophisticated textures the proper attention they deserve. Hardly fair; there is no reason for a world that worships Frank Sinatra to forget about Morten Harket. Or is there? Follow my thumbs up and then decide for yourself.