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Sunday, July 29, 2018

A-Ha: MTV Unplugged - Summer Solstice


CD 1: 1) This Is Our Home; 2) Lifelines; 3) I've Been Losing You; 4) Analogue (All I Want); 5) The Sun Always Shines On TV; 6) A Break In The Clouds; 7) Foot Of The Mountain; 8) Stay On These Roads; 9) This Alone Is Love; 10) Over The Treetops; 11) Forever Not Yours.
CD 2: 1) Sox Of The Fox; 2) Scoundrel Days; 3) The Killing Moon; 4) Summer Moved On; 5) Memorial Beach; 6) Living A Boys Adventure Tale; 7) Manhattan Skyline; 8) The Living Daylights; 9) Hunting High And Low; 10) Take On Me.

General verdict: I never thought I'd openly prefer synth-pop A-Ha to acoustic A-Ha if I were given the chance, but here is this chance, and, honestly, I think they blew it.

The most I have learned from listening to this record is that, believe it or not, the «MTV Un­plugged» concept still exists. Yes, apparently, they still produce these shows from time to time; it is just that, since most of them are now reserved for the likes of Miley Cyrus, the probability of my ever encountering one is close to zero. In any case, even this particular show was recorded in a small, near-secret studio on the Norwegian island of Giske, which is about as far from any kind of MTV headquarters as possible; and what the show really did was kick off a small acoustic tour, meaning that this was not just an isolated event, but rather the start of a carefully pre-planned temporary image change — and MTV just came along for the ride.

On the surface, it would seem that acoustic A-Ha might be a great idea: their main strength was always in the melodies and catchy hooks, and all those who have issues with their synth-pop style could surely welcome the change. And they took the idea seriously, coming up with significant rearrangements — keys, tempos, instrumentation — that give you completely different versions of the songs, while simultaneously retaining most of the hooks. Throw in the fact that Morten Harket remains forever young (nearing 60, yet almost fully retaining the youthfulness of his ʽTake On Meʼ voice), and I was all set for a winner here.

Unfortunately, the actual results are somewhat limp. And the assembled setlist is not even the main problem — like just about any setlists, it could have been better, but they did a good job of representing nearly all the different stages of A-Ha (ironically, completely omitting their latest disaster, Cast In Steel, though there are two forgettable newly written songs to compensate), and I, for one, was pleased to see Analogue, their underrated masterpiece, being represented not just by the title track, but also by ʽOver The Treetopsʼ, arguably one of their most successful ventures into the world of psychedelia. And even if most of the time the band loyally concentrates on its well-known hits, the rearranged versions should technically be delaying boredom.

Yet it is still boring. They may have eliminated some of the excessive details of the originals' overproduction, but in doing so, they have also removed the energy pin — I mean, there is no way whatsoever that this particular version of ʽThe Living Daylightsʼ, slowed down and softened up, could be a hit; and while the melodic content of ʽTake On Meʼ may be even easier appreciate than it used to be, the head-spinning effect of the youthful, passionate original is no longer present here — now the song is more of an acoustic guitar-and-piano lullaby than an over-the-top love serenade; interesting for one listen, perhaps, but relating to the old variant pretty much the same way that Clapton's much-maligned acoustic ʽLaylaʼ relates to the classic (and I actually like the acoustic ʽLaylaʼ).

Bringing in some old and new friends to sit in on the session hardly helps. For ʽI've Been Losing Youʼ, they enlist American singer-songwriter Lissie, who sounds just like your average American singer-songwriter with a kind heart and a forgettable personality. (It may be important that now the guy and the girl are both losing each other, but it does not exactly open up a new dimension in this fairly straightforward tune). On ʽThe Sun Always Shines On TVʼ, they are joined by fellow Norwegian songwriter Ingrid Helene Håvik — who may simply have been in the neighborhood, since I fail to detect anything special about her voice. Worst of all is ʽSummer Moved Onʼ, for which they enlist Alison Moyet of Yazoo fame: I have no idea what her testosterone-heavy voice has to do with the plaintive lyricism of the song, other than provide a good pretext for Harket not hitting that ultra-long note in "left to ask...", replacing it with a cute little melismatic dance for two — nice, but cheap, buddy. Just admit that you can't do it any more, we will understand.

The big deal is supposed to happen when they extract Ian McCulloch, the hero of Echo & The Bunnymen, to help them on ʽScoundrel Daysʼ, and then return the favor by covering his own ʽKilling Moonʼ. This is a touching moment that will probably appeal to the fanbase of both bands, though I cannot certify that they spark up any additional magic; it does, however, make me think that, perhaps, putting together some sort of supergroup consisting of formerly gorgeous frontmen of New Wave and synth-pop acts and having them redo all their stuff with acoustic guitars, pianos, and strings could be a memorable act.

Other than that, I do not really know what to say — just randomly playing some of the originals back to back with the reworked versions and discovering, for instance, that the oddly Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-ian flavor of ʽOver The Treetopsʼ has faded away now that Morten sings the song in a lower key, and the distorted lead guitar vs. falsetto harmonies charm of old is no longer present; or that the frustration and anger of ʽManhattan Skylineʼ have been replaced by lifeless whining — granted, one man's lifeless whining is another one's sensual beauty, but I do not think that an album of this stature requires careful analytical scrutiny of one's gut feeling, and my gut feeling says there is definitely something missing. I understand the decision to soften up and quiet down — nobody is getting younger — but the fact is, these songs were not so magical in the first place that softening and quieting them down can open up their hidden potential.


  1. Interesting to see Echo and the Bunnymen mentioned here. Would love to hear some of your thoughts on these guys (personally, I quite enjoy a decent amount of their hits, especially "Lips Like Sugar").

    1. I second this. Have been wondering for a while what George's thoughts on the Bunnymen would be