A-HA: MINOR EARTH MAJOR SKY (2000)
1) Minor Earth Major Sky; 2) Little Black Heart; 3) Velvet; 4) Summer Moved On; 5) The Sun Never Shone That Day; 6) To Let You Win; 7) The Company Man; 8) Thought That It Was You; 9) I Wish I Cared; 10) Barely Hanging On; 11) You'll Never Get Over Me; 12) I Won't Forget Her; 13) Mary Ellen Makes The Moment Count.
There is probably no harm in speculating on the idea that A-Ha's comeback could have been triggered by the popularity of the new wave of vocal groups, such as the Backstreet Boys — after almost a decade's worth of grunge, Brit-pop, and R'n'B dominating the charts, sexy teen idols initiated their revenge, and, considering that Morten could still qualify as such (apparently, he is very careful about his diet, which works wonders for both his voice and his good looks), A-Ha agreed to give it one more chance.
It all started with 'Summer Moved On', of course; the resting band was conjured to reconvene at the Nobel Peace Prize Contest in 1998, for which occasion Paul wrote a new song — and everyone liked it. I like it, too. It features the well-recognized gimmick of having the longest note held (in a hit song, at least) — during the bridge, Morten drags the line 'there's just one thing left to ask...' for over twenty seconds (and has, in fact, done this ever since in most of the band's live shows). But even without this bit of Guinness trivia, it is still a golden standard to which every writer and arranger of mainstream adult contemporary ballads should aspire. Rarely, if ever, does this genre feature anything close to Morten's falsetto interaction with the thunderous strings that give it a quasi-Beethovenish punch, although they take great care to preserve the general autumnal mood that accompanies most of their hits.
With such an obvious success under their belts, it was clear that more activity would follow. Minor Earth Major Sky put them back on the European charts, but failed to make a significant impression on the critics. Yet, again, in retrospect it definitely trumps the Backstreet Boys, even though much of it updates the A-Ha sound in an officially «late Nineties» way. Waaktaar-Savoy gets most of the credit: as good as Morten is throughout, it is his minor hooks that ensure listenability and, sometimes, even depth. And it is worth waiting for them — at first, the tunes might just seem the usual middle-of-the-road pop stuff with standard mid-tempo dance rhythms, «safe» acoustic backing tracks, predictable structures etc. But with a gifted songwriter and a tasteful singer, A-Ha have broken through the synth-pop of the mid-Eighties and subdued the funk-pop of the early Nineties; what problem could they have with taming the teen-pop of the turn of the millennium? Denying the beauty of Minor Earth is like denying the beauty of a Marilyn or a Sophia Loren — it's possible, it may be tempting, but don't you have anything better to do?
There are misfires. 'I Won't Forget Her' is very catchy, but songs that combine mid-tempo ska-ish rhythms with bubbly synthesizer tones are an official disgrace that should be forever reserved to third-grade pop acts in developing countries; I am astonished that the tune finds a spot on the same CD as 'Summer Moved On', almost to the point of writing a petition. There are a few more songs, nowhere near as offensive, but which simply fail to register. Yet so much is good! The title track, with its cloudy atmosphere, gritty bassline, and genuinely psychedelic chorus. 'Velvet', whose ethereal female harmonies remind me of AIR. The humility of 'To Let You Win', which just floats by at first, but then grabs you by being the only song on the album that absolutely refuses to grab you. The odd melancholy of 'You'll Never Get Over Me': it is hard to imagine a context for the lines 'you'll never get over me, I'll never get under you' that would not be humorous, but the music leaves no place for humour, only elegant sorrow.
If these little shards of compliments do not sound convincing, how about the band dragging out a friggin' Mellotron for the conclusion — the strange, haunting ballad 'Mary Ellen Makes The Moment Count'? Supposedly it is the band's personal take on the subject of 'Eleanor Rigby', with the depiction of a somewhat similar character, and I would not deem it out of place on any classic late Sixties' art-rock album. It may have been a bit pretentious of them to close the record that way — «look at us, we play it straight and simple, but we will go out with an art-pop song so your last memory will be of us as relevant, responsible, and refined artists» — but the key point here is that they qualify as such, if only with one or two songs, and this raises the overall score. It also delights the brain, a much-needed shot in the arm after the deadly mistake of 'I Won't Forget Her'; and the heart — the heart has long since pledged its support to Morten if he works hard enough to deserve it, and his is one of the most hard-working (not to mention hairless) bare chests in existence. Thumbs up for a respectable comeback.