a-ha’s 11th studio album was released a couple of weeks ago and here SDE takes a look at the record, track by track. The writer of each song is noted, in parentheses.
I’m In (Magne Furuholmen)
Unfortunately,True North starts with a bit of a plodder. ‘I’m In’ tries to be epic and windswept but is hampered both by a twee lyric about not giving up and just believing in yourself and melodically only having one idea. There’s nothing wrong with the arrangement and the string/drum break at the 2.40 mark is a nice touch, but after that the song just reverts, with Morten Harket singing fairly high in his range which becomes a little tiresome after a while, with the limited melody on offer. Poor choice, frankly, for the opening track. I’m really not ‘in’, at this point.
Hunter in the Hills (Paul Waaktaar-Savoy)
This is more like it. ‘Hunter in the Hills’ starts with a groovy, shuffling drum beat accompanied only by bass, before ‘big band’ Sinatra-era strings comes in. As the arrangement develops with horns, piano, jazz drums and chiming guitars, it becomes apparent that the sixties work of Burt Bacharach is a key influence here. A great chorus, a wonderful arrangement and some good lines from Paul. A whole album like this would have been excellent, although as we will see, that doesn’t come to pass.
As If (Paul Waaktaar-Savoy)
The opening verse is sparse and doesn’t feel particularly strong, either melodically or lyrically, but the chorus saves this song; it’s pretty catchy and even if the titular ‘As If’ grates a little bit. It’s another strong arrangement but as we return to the somewhat lacklustre verses, it’s clear that their main role is to make you ‘look forward’ to the chorus and it is a relief when it kicks in. A great, cinematic ending, but overall, ‘As If’ is a little bit disappointing from a songwriter as good as Waaktaar-Savoy.
Between The Halo And The Horn (Magne Furuholmen)
‘Between The Halo And The Horn’ has an intriguing title and the intimate, yearning beginning promises much, but rather like Magne’s ‘I’m In’, it doesn’t really go anywhere and gets stuck on variations of one unmemorable melody line. You are hoping for a brilliant chorus that takes you somewhere else, but it doesn’t arrive, and you’re left in the same place. It’s all ploddingly polite and predictable and another decent arrangement is wasted on a dull and earnest song.
True North (Magne Furuholmen)
‘True North’ sounds so much like ‘Stay On This Roads’ at the beginning that it surely must be a deliberate nod to the title track of a-ha’s third album. While the listener gets a buzz from the familiarity, it’s not the best idea from a band point of view because ‘True North’ is rather a pale imitation. “Stay on these roads / We shall meet, I know” from the 1988 song are simple, brilliant lines – so emotional and powerful, when combined with that melody. You will search in vain for lyrics as good in ‘True North’. I mean, “Due north / You just have to believe” doesn’t cut the mustard and the ongoing sailor metaphor (“far from the shore”, “guiding me to port” etc.) is tedious, although allow me extend it by saying ‘True North’ should walk the plank.
Bumblebee (Paul Waaktaar-Savoy)
The arrangement of ‘Bumblebee’ is cut from the same cloth as ‘Hunter in the Hills’, with a lovely ’60s-style arrangement, with flutes, piano, jazzy drums and funky guitar, which had me thinking about Paul Weller’s 1992 solo debut. It has pace to it, which is a relief after some slower numbers, and the lyric – sung by Morten largely at the lower end of his range – is Paul’s tribute to his older sister Tonje, as he recalls the old days and specific details like her ‘corduroy jacket’ and ‘leather satchel’. It’s beautifully executed and is rather charming.
Forest For The Trees (Paul Waaktaar-Savoy)
Lead string lines and acoustic guitars kick off this likeable mid-paced song which mostly ticks all the right boxes, with a strong melody, reassuring structure, and a good lyric, where Paul reflects on the world around us (“I don’t live in a time / Where the truth prevails”). The strings build in the chorus, injecting some drama, and it resolves satisfyingly for the “What you really see / Forest for the trees” payoff line. Not up there with the outright classics, but one of the better numbers on the album. Good vocal performance from Morten.
Bluest of Blues (Magne Furuholmen)
With True North songwriting contributions split evenly, with six songs from Paul and six from Magne, it’s fair to say that thus far, a-ha’s keyboard player hasn’t delivered the quality we might have hoped for. All the best songs have been Paul’s. But with ‘Bluest of Blues’ Mags finally offers something pretty good. Furuholmen has crafted a fine chamber-pop type chorus that genuinely feels like it could have been an album track on Hunting High and Low or Scoundrel Days. It’s a bit on the sweet side (I’m craving some darker undertones, eight tracks into this record) but nonetheless it’s a solid effort.
Make Me Understand (Paul Waaktaar-Savoy)
Finally, ‘Make Me Understand’ delivers what used to come so naturally to a-ha, the massive pop chorus complete with synth stabs and electronic production. In a future greatest hits, ‘Make Me Understand’ will be the song that ‘represents’ True North. This song is brilliant and has your reaching for the hairbrush/air guitar as you practise ‘your’ performance for Top of the Pops. It’s so good that the non-existent verses are effectively irrelevant.
You Have What It Takes (Magne Furuholmen)
This is a beautiful ballad as Mags’ final act continues to impress. Morten sings to a pretty guitar figure supported with elegant strings. ‘You Have What It Takes’ flows effortlessly as words and music combine to deliver something rather special.
Summer Rain (Magne Furuholmen)
Another one from Magne, ‘Summer Rain’ recalls the acoustic, vibe of much of East of the Sun West of the Moon and like a few tracks from that 1990 album, it wears its Doors influences on its sleeve, particularly with Morten’s voice pitched lower for the verses and the keyboard refrain after the first chorus. This song is fantastically engaging and despite the title, has a windswept autumnal feel to it. Mags is on a roll!
Oh My Word (Paul Waaktaar-Savoy)
Paul wrote the final song on True North and it has that wonderful, slightly low-key, end-of-record quality. Think ‘(Seemingly) Nonstop July’ or ‘Mary Ellen Makes The Moment Count’. We’re back to delicate, polite chamber-pop style arrangements and this could almost be the song that takes you into the interval in a musical theatre setting, but it works rather well.
So what to make of True North? It’s an album full of compromises with Morten apparently having no interest in writing any songs, or lyrics, Magne looking to contribute significantly (it won’t be a coincidence that he has an equal number of tracks as Paul) and Paul just wanting to record an a-ha album so he could do something with all the songs he naturally stockpiles.
No one, apart possibly from Paul, wanted to be stuck in a studio together for months, so the album became a high concept project, where much of True North was recorded live in a concert hall and filmed at the same time. There are similarities with The Beatles and their what-are-we-going-to-do-next Get Back/Let It Be project. The a-ha recording location was the Svommehallen concert hall in a town called Bodø, 90km outside the Artic Circle.
This certainly explains the strings, the style of arrangements but ultimately the album lives or dies on the strength of its songs. On the 2LP vinyl set the four sides are called ‘North’, ‘East’, ‘South’ and ‘West’ and it has to be said that the first half of the album (‘North’ and ‘East’, which is ‘I’m In’ to ‘Bumblebee’ is noticeably weaker than the second. This is mostly because Magne’s songs are lacking in the early part of the album and halfway through I thought it was going to no contest at all between the bandmates. However, things pick up noticeably for the last six tracks and Mags’ songs do match Paul’s in quality with the exception of Waaktaar-Savoy’s ‘Make Me Understand’ which remains the best track on the album.
True North ultimately feels fragmented and is rather sails in whatever direction the creative winds were blowing at any particular time. To pick up on the maritime analogies that Magne is so fond of, a-ha is now a ship with three captains, and that’s not a recipe for success. I’m glad they tried, but four of five good-to-great songs and some inspired arrangements are all we are left with.
Album rating: 3/5
True North is out now.
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True North CD edition