Good sailors always return…
Back in 2015, a-ha surprised everyone by doing a volte-face on their then-retirement to return with new album Cast In Steel (see TEC review). That album presented the band in a more mature light and seemed to be the perfect bookend to an impressive musical journey that had spanned thirty years.
Since then, a-ha have built on that post-reformation period in an impressive style, including a star turn with their Hunting High and Low tour, an MTV Unplugged performance and also the release of documentary a-ha: The Movie, which offered up a rare glimpse into the working methods of the band.
True North was produced in combination with an accompanying film and also a collaboration with Norwegian orchestra the Arctic Philharmonic. Magne Furuholmen has discussed the album’s themes as revolving around “nature and the environment” and also summed up the entire True North project as a “musical letter from our home country”.
What immediately jumps out from the new album is a clear evolution from Cast In Steel. Although their 2015 album showcased a band that was older and wiser, there was a definite lean-in towards a pop palette. True North, by contrast, is a slower, denser affair that takes a longer time perhaps to appreciate. The new album also divides up the songwriting duties equally between Magne Furuholmen and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy. Given the tensions inherent in a-ha’s delicate chemistry (as revealed in the insightful a-ha: The Movie documentary), this seems to be a shrewd useof diplomacy.
So how does the album stack up in terms of quality? Certainly ‘I’m In’, the track that gave listeners the first glimpse of a-ha’s latest efforts, is a fine composition that successfully captures that richer, mellower sound from the band. At the same time, there’s a veneer of sorts that calls to a-ha’s imperial era melodic outings.
The big band vibe on ‘Hunter In The Hills’ gives True North a lounge pop moment, although it’s a quirky affair that stands apart from the other tracks on the album. Meanwhile, ‘As If’ delivers a shimmering pop moment that sounds like a-ha covering Belle & Sebastian.
The album’s title track resonates with more than a passing nod to 1988’s classic ‘Stay On These Roads’. It’s a sweeping number that makes good use of its sea-based narrative while the orchestral elements lend the song a velvety polish. As a composition, it captures the essence of that Nordic melancholia that a-ha made their own, albeit in a slower, more considered fashion.
There’s a softer aspect to ‘You Have What It Takes’ which serves up some pointed philosophical musings (“Learn to make better mistakes”) against gentler instrumentation. Elsewhere, the shuffling percussion of ‘Bumblebee’ has a more sprightly quality, serving up a summery vibe against the arctic moodiness that dominates the album as a whole.
‘Forest For The Trees’ offers a more dramatic approach which makes full use of sweeping string arrangements and Morten Harket’s mournful vocal (the song also employs a self-referential lyrical moment which makes for a strangely meta moment). The lilting moods of ‘Bluest Of Blue’ gives the album’s final third a folksy charm followed by the poppier ‘Make Me Understand’, which dips back into the band’s classic era.
There’s a definite organic quality lurking on True North which gives the tracks a warm, earthy feel. The contributions of the Arctic Philharmonic lend the songs here a sweeping grandeur with lush textures and a style that gives the album a much broader vista to live in. Arguably, Cast In Steel and 2009’s Foot of the Mountain are stronger efforts, but like a fine wine, True North will likely improve with age.