A-HA: ANALOGUE (2005)
1) Celice; 2) Don't Do Me Any Favours; 3) Cosy Prisons; 4) Analogue; 5) Birthright; 6) Holy Ground; 7) Over The Treetops; 8) Halfway Through The Tour; 9) A Fine Blue Line; 10) Keeper Of The Flame; 11) Make It Soon; 12) White Dwarf; 13) The Summers Of Our Youth.
East Of The Sun may have been the ultimate A-Ha experience, but Analogue is simply the best A-Ha album — even though, for the most part, it sounds not one bit like A-Ha. It got some mild critical praise, yielded a couple briefly high-charting singles for the European market, and then got washed away for good, failing to shift the general memory of A-Ha as the «'Take On Me' group with the sexy singer». Why should it?
Well, there are some good reasons. Almost as if Lifelines never happened, the boys make a sharp stylistic turn, completely jettisoning modernistic trappings and making a record that hearkens back — way beyond Eighties synth-pop, aiming straight at the heart of the art-pop movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Of course, they always had that tendency — but this is the first (and last) time they made a record that does not sound ashamed of it, but, on the contrary, proudly throws its retro-ishness in your face.
With too much force, perhaps: I was all but astonished at reading people condemning the beauty of Analogue on various fora, until it dawned on me that most of these people must have grown up listening to 'Take On Me' and 'The Living Daylights', and that this is what they still expect from Harket and Waaktar-Savoy — whereas people who could care less about Norwegian teen idols in the 1980s hardly have a big reason to care more about them today. In other words, the good old tragedy of clumsy niche-jumping.
But am I ever glad they made that jump. It was obvious, almost from the start, that Analogue is a record these guys always had in them, what with all the talent; that it took them twenty years to finally get around to it is nothing compared to the fact that it is finally here. Plus, age has certainly wisened them up, opened new horizons, raised new issues, and made them independent enough to produce the record in exactly the right way.
What are the album's influences? Well, I hear a little McCartney, a little Elton John, a little Neil Young, a little Badfinger, a little Moody Blues, and if I listen to it some more, I will most certainly double the list. One might say that, behind all these influences, we do not get to hear much A-Ha, but there never was one particular, immutable brand of A-Ha; the main virtue of these guys is that they are musical chameleons, whose only near-constant assets are hooky songwriting and Harket's angel voice. This you certainly get on Analogue, in spades.
Thirteen tracks that range from «nice» to «gorgeous», each song meaningful (even if the meaning never goes too deep) and evocative. We have some synths, but generally the album is dominated by (in descending order) piano, acoustic and electric guitars, the latter with a heavy psychedelic sheen sometimes. For instance, on 'Over The Treetops' Harket gets helped out from Mr. Graham Nash in person on backing vocals — and the two end up sounding like... Neil Young (!) on some of his early records, although the song's vibe is more akin to LSD-fuelled artists of the decade.
'Halfway Through The Tour' is another clear highlight — a gloriously anthemic Beatlesque pop-rocker for the first three minutes, a folk-ambient Brian Eno-ish instrumental for the last four; the two parts creak at the seams a little bit, but are equally uplifting. For a band that never did instrumental compositions before, that four-minute coda is a true marvel of sound. Also, the lyrics, vaguely dealing with the issues on life of the road, do not fit the melody very well (too earthly for its heavenly aspirations), but no one forces you to take them literally; think of the «tour» as a metaphor for a journey through parallel realities and it all falls together.
"Give it up for rock'n'roll, give it up for how it made you feel", Harket sings on 'Keeper Of The Flame', and one might think of the song as cheap nostalgia for the good old days — but the emphasis is not on giving it up for rock'n'roll, the emphasis is on giving it up, period; it is a beautiful ballad of mourning for things that never came to be: "Monumental monuments, sentimental sentiments, you could have been the keeper of the flame". A strange song, but as gorgeous a piano pop ballad as they ever write them.
None of these were singles, though. The ones that were are a little less obviously retro. 'Celice' is a kick-ass pop-rocker, pushed forward by a simple, persistent, undetachable guitar riff and paying tribute to Cocteau Twins in the background, where Paul concocts a wall-of-sound of guitar trills and spacey effects. The title track is a kick-ass pop-rocker, pushed forward by a simple, persistent, undetachable piano riff and paying tribute to no one in particular in the background, where Paul, nevertheless, still concocts a wall-of-sound of guitar trills and spacey effects. And 'Cosy Prisons' sounds like contemporary Paul McCartney. A bit.
Where the record is not proverbially gorgeous, it is, at the least, engaging by being utterly unpredictable. 'Make It Soon', for instance, begins as a bare-bones acoustic ballad, with only the slightest touch of a hint at its being able to «explode» — and even so, no one can guess that, when it does explode, it does so through a wildly distorted psychedelic guitar solo, before settling back into its dangerously romantic vibe once more.
There is little doubt in my mind that, had this not been an official A-Ha album, but an obscure indie record by an obscure indie band released on an obscure indie label, the people from Pitchfork and similar places would have been falling all over it, putting it on Top 10 lists and writing about it defining the sound of the new millennium. As it is, no one is supposed to listen to former teen idols in the new millennium, and few will be convinced that this is not merely an intricate reorganization of the 'Take On Me' approach. Their loss, brother. Thumbs up from the brain, amazed at how much work went into this thing, and same from the heart that has, by now, learned to look past Morten Harket's bare chest and sleazy haircuts — in fact, to hell with all that image stuff altogether, let us just enjoy the music while we can.