a-ha is one of the biggest pop successes in Norwegian history. In autumn ’85, the boys reached no. 1 in the US and no. 2 in the UK with their début single Take On Me. They went on to wreak havoc on the charts with eighteen hit singles and six albums, including the collection Headlines and Deadlines – The Hits of a-ha, and wrote the title theme for the James Bond film The Living Daylights in ’87. Then everything came to a sudden halt with the grand, melancholy album Memorial Beach in ’93. Teenage heroes Morten (surname Harket), Mags (real name Magne Furuholmen) and Paal (now surnamed Waaktar-Savoy) quietly disappeared, and it would be an exaggeration to maintain that the world missed them. Until now, that is.
In 2000, a-ha sounds as pompous and grandiose as it did in the eighties. The new album, called Minor Earth, Major Sky, features the single Summer Moved On. The melancholy is the same, as are the stylistically sure-footed, well-composed pop songs and Morten Harket’s voice, which is husky, as deep as a quivering Scott Walker and as neurotically falsetto as Ibsen’s distressed Nora. People often criticise those they love and, to be frank, the reception of the first a-ha album since ’93 has been decidedly mixed.
Surprisingly, the return of a-ha took place through Warner Music in Germany, which is also the country (apart from Norway) that has given the CD the best reception so far. The album was produced by the fairly unknown Andreas “Boogieman” Herbig, who belongs in the dance/ techno sphere. On Minor Earth, Major Sky, the dance rhythms are more like a careful game, providing space and air in a sound image that is further enhanced by strings from the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. There are few gimmicks and plenty of music, little pop hysteria and a mature, relaxed style; the musicians are not trying to follow contemporary trends but giving themselves more leeway to be themselves. This may be deduced from the fact that the composing has been more evenly distributed, although Waaktar-Savoy is undoubtedly the band’s main think-tank.
While the rest of the world spent the 1990s forgetting a-ha, the cult remained alive. On the Internet, there are at least sixty serious a-ha sites from nineteen countries. Nor have the band’s members been totally inactive in the post-a-ha era: Paal (38), the chief composer, lives in New York and Oslo and has recorded three albums – Mary is Coming (’96), Lackluster Me and Mountains of Time (’99) – with his new group, Savoy, and his wife, Lauren. One of their best tunes, Velvet, is featured on the new a-ha album. In terms of style, Savoy sounds “independent” and the guitar plays a prominent role.
Mags (37) has established a career for himself as a curator and artist in Oslo alongside his musical activities, which have mainly consisted of instrumental music for the Norwegian turkey films Hotel Oslo and 1732 Høtten – very ethereal, elegiac, synthesizer-based compositions in cooperation with some of a-ha’s studio and concert musicians.
Morten (40) has had the most bizarre career since his pin-up era, having acted and sung in a children’s film (Kamilla og tyven 1), sung in a choral work (Ragnar Bjerkreim’s Missa Caritatis) and even co-hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo in ’96. His three solo albums are Poetenes evangelium (’93), on the theme of the life of Christ in Norwegian poetry, the a-ha-light album Wild Seed (’95), which brought him back to the top of the Norwegian charts and Vogts villa (’96), an ordinary Norwegian pop album that sold catastrophically badly.
a-ha is back, somewhere between a “minor earth” and a “major sky” – in other words, at its roots.