a-ha's
Home » a-ha, Norwegian, Reviews, Scandinavian

a-ha’s “Under The Make-Up” brims with melancholy

29 June 2015 37 Comments
This blog belongs to Radio Creme Brulee – an internet music radio station that broadcasts globally.

a-ha-CastInSteel“If you have more to say, why wouldn’t you say it” said Paul Waaktaar at a press conference at the Norwegian Embassy in Berlin in March 2015. This was his explanation for why Norwegian pop/rock trio a-ha reunited this year for a new album titled Cast In Steel (slated for release in September 2015) – just a few years after they had officially called it quits as a band and toured extensively as part of their “Ending on a high note” tour. The Norwegian Embassy was the band’s platform to announce their decision to reunite for another album. The decision met with excitement from delirious fans that craved more of a-ha when the band made their grand exit a few years ago. It also met with criticism from those that labeled the band as capitalizing on the “farewell tour bandwagon” and milking it for what it is worth – just to return again a few years later and repeat the highly profitable endeavor of announcing a disbandment (how many farewell tours have The Eagles done so far?). Needless to say, we were thrilled by their announcement and could barely wait to hear the new single title “Under the makeup” which surfaced earlier today.

In a career that spanned 25 years, a-ha has demonstrated a series of stylistic incarnations. This trend, in particular was more obvious after they returned to the limelight in 2000 post an 8-year-long hiatus as a band. “Minor Earth Major Sky” (2000) can be best be described as the perfect marriage of electronic and acoustic elements. “Lifelines” (2002) veered closer to a MOR Adult Contemporary flavor. “Analogue” (2006), for the most part, is a guitar-driven rock album while “Foot of the mountain” (2009) represented a-ha’s “full circle” return to their synth roots and the sound that made them international pop stars with their multi-platinum debut album “Hunting High and Low“. To say that the band’s sonic versatility was staggering would be quite the understatement.

Hence, it is obvious that the first question of consequence revolved around the stylistic direction a-ha would take with the material on their new album “Cast In Steel”. If the new single “Under the make-up” is any indication of what the album will sound like, it appears that the band has opted for a musical mid-point between the “Lifelines” album and lead singer Morten Harket’s “Brother” album. The song is a fairly melancholic and downbeat affair that seems to eschew the musical trademarks (e.g. Morten’s recognizable falsetto) of a typical a-ha single. The song opens with a sparse piano accompaniment to Morten Harket’s distinct and beautiful vocals. The verses do not have any melodic hooks. The chorus fares slightly better although it is still quite pedestrian. In this song, songwriter Paul Waaktaar delves into the universal theme of loss of love. The wistfulness of the song permeates most noticeably in the song’s second verse:

If you wanted out
Didn’t I let you go
If you wanted in
Didn’t I make it so.
It could be
Tenderness escaped so easily.

The poignantly sung lyrics on this verse are beautiful in their simplicity. The song’s most noteworthy element is its generous deployment of cinematic orchestration which reaches its absolute peak after the second chorus and replaces the Middle 8 (an element in a typical pop song’s structure). The hauntingly beautiful string section of the song almost sounds like something that could have taken its birth from the creative synergies between a-ha and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra as they were rehearsing for the highly acclaimed Royal Albert Hall (London) concerts back in October 2010.

Given that the music of a-ha has, for the most part, succeeded incredibly well in being a radio staple (outside of the US) for most of the band’s recording career, it is only fair to wonder what the radio-hit potential is for this song. While the merit of the song is undeniable, we believe that its lack of melodic hooks, and its sharp deviation from a typical radio staple’s song structure might undermine its ability to catch fire with radio playlist programmers, and that this in turn, might result in the song not being an essential in a-ha’s “singles-rich” legacy. In fact, the song would make a fantastic closing track for the Cast In Steel album. It has the classic elements of a grand finale as opposed to those of an appetizer for a new album. In fact, we think the song is a rather odd choice for a lead single.

We have always thought of a-ha as a radio-friendly pop act. Hence, we sincerely hope that “Under the make-up” is not representative of the overall sound of the album. I guess we will find out sooner than later. Until then, here is a full-length clip of a-ha’s “Under The Make-Up”:

STAR RATING: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Follow Radio Creme Brulee (@rcremebrulee) on Twitter

IMPORTANT: Our a-haCountdown to Rio” request event ends on September 27,2015. Get your voice heard on our global broadcast as you request for your favorite a-ha song. Click HERE for details!

AMERICAN A-HA FANS: a-ha has announced concert TOUR DATES but sadly none of those dates include the US so please SIGN THIS PETITION to get your voice heard and help bring the Norwegian pop/rock trio to the US to tour again.

george-michael-amazing-playbutton

Broadcasting Worldwide

We are an American internet radio station that broadcasts worldwide. The station features an eclectic mix of current pop and rock music from both sides of the Atlantic alongside hits, forgotten gems, and rarities from the last three decades. The music of a-ha (both old and new) is a regular staple on our radio station. The music (both old and new) of a-ha is a regular staple on our station – including songs from the “Cast In Steel” album. We also play plenty of newer music by bands that rose to prominence in the 80s. Noteworthy examples include Tears For Fears, Duran Duran, Camouflage, Spandau Ballet, George Michael, INXS, Depeche Mode, Johnny Hates Jazz, Simple Minds, and Culture Club.

Give us a spin when you get a chance.
We just might become your alternative of choice!



37 Responses to "a-ha’s “Under The Make-Up” brims with melancholy"

  1. Lax says:

    Very good review! The album will be a lot more diverse given the now 3 creative groups that is A-ha. Now where the Furuholmen is Magne on this song? 🙂

  2. Lax Madapaty says:

    Very good and insightful review. This song is not at all representative of the album, since diversity will come from the 3 creative centers in the band. Now, where the Furuholmen is Magne on this one? 🙂

  3. Llb El says:

    Wonderful arrangement.

  4. @Lax: Thanks a ton for the stamp of approval. It will be interesting to see how the album pans out.

  5. @Llb El: Thanks of the comment!

  6. Mary B says:

    I think the song is lovely. The beauty of a-ha is how diverse their songs are. I’ve said for over 20 years, “there’s an a-ha song for every occasion.”

  7. @Mary B: Thank you so much for the comment. a-ha is without a doubt a very versatile band musically speaking. We cannot wait to see what the rest of the album has in store for us. Just out of curiosity, how did you discover our radio station? And would you be willing to share 5 occasions on here and put an a-ha song against them. I am really keen to see what emerges. Thank you in advance!

  8. Cruzeiro E. C. says:

    woooow I love A-ha. A-ha is my favorite band ever. because their songs touch our souls. since 1995 when i was 5 years old i’ve been listening to A-ha tirelessly. HUGS FROM BRAZIL.

  9. Ciaran M says:

    It’s a cracker! Not a natural summer single I’d say, but I love the orchestration. I’m hoping there’s an album version as this one feels a bit truncated. Maybe hobbled by the constraints of the 3 minute single, wish we were back in a time when that didn’t matter, Sun Always Shines was over five minutes and a UK number 1.

    Regardless, as a red head, this summer I’m staying inside and keeping the curtains closed while listening to this.

  10. adrian says:

    Great review folks.

    I’ve listened to the new track a ton of times and still swing wildly between not being sure about it to loving it. I think your review probably captures my feelings on it pretty well. I think it’s a great A-Ha song – if the album proves to be full of tracks of that standard then it’ll be a great record but I’m just not sure that it’s a great single. It seems to be missing some of the great A-Ha single trademarks especially a soaring Morten vocal. That said Cozy Prisons was hardly a typical A-Ha single either so the lads have form for being awkward on occasion with single choices (it wasn’t a first single though).

    I think at the end of the day I’m going to embrace this and see the positives in it. It may not be the archetypal A-Ha single but does it need to be? Is a hit single all that important any more? Of course I want to see them do well but I’d be even happier to see them produce their best and most consistent album to date at such a late stage in their careers and further cement the credibility that they’ve gained in the UK and Europe in recent years. And isn’t their creativity, allied to intransigence and unwillingness to simply tread the same worn tracks a huge part of the reason that so many of us have stuck with them for 30 years? It certainly is for me.

    Stay on these roads and you’ll be fine A-Ha (and Radio Creme Brulee!).

  11. Nane says:

    Have to say, I`m the same opionion like adrian! It`s not a typical radio song, yes, but it don`t have to be! They don`t have to sell millions of singles with it, they just give their best now and not the best for comercial.
    And by the way…. there`s less Magne in this song, I agree, but there`s a lot of Morten in it I think. He`s always had this little dark and thinkful tone .. I like it and look forward to hear the complete album!

  12. @Cruzerio E.C.: You seem to be one of the younger a-ha fans. That is brilliant! We’ve always believed that a-ha should have cross-generational appeal and it is so good to see that via your comment. Just out of curiosity, how did you discover our radio station and blog?

  13. @Cruzeiro E.C.: My apologies for misspelling your name in the last comment!

  14. @Ciaran M: Singles, in general, had to be shorter, but I think 3 minutes is a bit too restrictive. Some of our favorite singles veer closer to the 5-minute mark. On our radio station, we tend to do radio edits for tracks that are longer than 5.5 or 6 minutes but we don’t bother editing for any song that is shorter than 5 minutes. Broadcast radio, as a format, has become quite restrictive. The rules are made by people – so they can be changed. There just needs to be a willingness to do so. We cannot help but wonder what a-ha’s “cast in steel” will sound like. I get the feeling “under the make-up” is not representative of what the rest of the album will sound like. Just out of curiosity, how did you discover our radio station and blog?

  15. @adrian: Thank you so much for the insightful comment Adrian! It is interesting that you mentioned “Cosy Prisons” – which, if i am not mistaken, was released as a the third single off “Analogue”. But it would have made a poor candidate for a lead single. The band was right to go with something instant and almost alarmingly engaging like “Celice” even though “Analogue” (title track) was the one that really blew up for them. Incidentally, we do play “Cosy Prisons” every now and then.
    As for the question about whether this absolutely needs to be the archetypal a-ha single, I think it is debatable. Ultimately, for a band like a-ha that has a legacy as a commercial act (translation: has traction on broadcast radio), comparisons are inevitable. And for better of for worse, the common comparison will be with former material that performed well on radio – especially since this song has been released as a lead single. I am sure you remember that “Foot of the mountain” did make it to terrestrial radio outside the US (I don’t recall what the radio situation was for that song in the UK). I remember hearing it on the radio while vacationing in Poland in mid-2010. Hence, a-ha’s radio heyday is not that far in the past for it to not be relevant anymore. Thoughts?
    As a radio DJ, I want these amazing acts to hook younger listeners that are unaware of their legacy with every piece of material they release. I am not a bad example of a listener that latched on to a-ha much later. While I had heard of a-ha in my childhood, my love affair with the band’s music started during a Christmas vacation in 2000. I was visiting India and I heard “Summer Moved On” on MTV India. To say I was hooked would be an understatement – and I had not even discovered the brilliance of albums such as “Hunting high and low” at that point.

    I think that because we are a radio station, our perspectives are driven by the radio-friendliness factor (which is not necessarily a fair or relevant one in every case).

  16. @adrian: Just out of curiosity, how did you discover our radio station and blog?

  17. @Nane: If I did not know better, I would have automatically assumed that this was a solo endeavor of Morten Harket’s as opposed to an a-ha single. Magne is conspicuous by his absence on this song. a-ha probably does not feel the pressure of having a hit single at this point but I believe that great acts should have great finales – and to be honest, “Under the make-up” would have been a fantastic finale given the magical orchestration on it – but given that this was meant to be the opening to the a-ha chapter that wasn’t meant to be, it almost feels like they are fast-forwarding to the conclusion of the chapter – musically speaking. Just out of curiosity, how did you discover our radio station and blog?

  18. Iloveaha says:

    I was very put off when the group reunited. I had scrambled to see them during their farewell thinking that they were telling the truth. Paul seemed gutted by the decision to end it and so based on his reaction I had to believe that a-ha were really coming to a close. Paul’s speech during the EOAHN video seemed to put any doubts to rest. I had made my peace with it and as a huge fan of their solo works I knew that as a fan there would still be music in the future. My heart sank when Paul only put out 2 songs on his own Weather Vane and Manmade Lake. Rumours of Savoy product were huge for a moment but then-nothing! I started to get suspicious when there were no announcements concerning Savoy. I was correct in my assumptions when the press conference was announced. Needless to say I feel that we all were scammed.

    My only question was why didn’t they just stay together. But frankly, it’s easy to see more money could be made from a farewell tour and comeback tour so why not take advantage of gullible fans who never wanted them to split!

    I directly accused Paul on Facebook of fabricating the breakup and comeback and he directly responded to me with some overly saccharine rubbish about baby turtles and the like. It was gag worthy and I think a part of me died a little. I feel foolish for going to extraordinary lengths to see my favorite band only to find out that it was a lie.

    The new song is an utter train wreck which doesn’t surprise me one bit. Why put out quality work when you know your fans will clamor for whatever slop you throw down. Very heartbroken. Very disappointed. Enjoy the comeback and the lack of conscience that has seemed to form over time. I love the music that once was and the band they once we’re but a-ha is no longer a-ha. A-ha is a money making machine who could care less how that money is made.

  19. @Iloveaha: Thank you so much for the comment. I think your comment speaks to something we highlighted in the first paragraph of our review. I think acts such as The Eagles and Cher sparked off a wave of cynicism around artists that do farewell tours only to reunite a few years later and milk the legacy “one last time” (except we’re always left guessing if it truly is the last time). I think a-ha would have been better off using the term “indefinite hiatus” as opposed to giving fans the impressions they were ending it. Furthermore, I think it is becoming more and more evident that their creativity comes in bursts and it is usually after some professional distance from each other. The hiatus prior to “Minor Earth Major Sky” might be a good example of that sudden burst. I think moving forward bands are going to use a lot more discretion when using the term “farewell tour” or “ending”. I think a lot of them are learning just how that can backfire if they choose to return. Oddly enough, the only band that did a farewell concert and truly meant it was Wham. George Michael truly locked the door on Wham and dropped the keys to that chapter of his life in a black hole somewhere. Just out of curiosity, how did you discover our radio station and blog? We would love to know.

  20. john B says:

    Maybe the band are being deliberately unpredictable rather than launching with an obvious choice like Foot of the Mountain. Maybe this album doesn’t have any ‘obvious’ singles, I don’t think they write deliberately for a hit single. And with the last album being commercially successful perhaps they don’t feel they have anything to prove.
    And maybe we’re all wrong and this could be just the type of record to sell lots of albums, to be honest A-ha don’t have hit singles in the UK anyway anymore so it’s album sales that are more important.

  21. @john: Quite possible that they’re not going for a singles market – and they probably don’t need any more radio success – but I have to believe that they thought there was some unlocked commercial value in reuniting. To truly unlock that commercial value, wouldn’t they need to have a radio hit? Just a thought. I think when they called it quits in 2010,they truly meant it but there must have been huge commercial potential (independent of touring) for them to come back together. Thoughts? Thank you for the comment.

  22. Lax Madapaty says:

    More thoughts. Pretty good though a surprising choice for a lead single, as it sounds more like an epic ending song for the album. Perhaps they’re drawing a connection from Butterfly (another great ‘ending’ song) and now will hopefully release a second single that is more in line with singles from the last era of A-ha to continue the ark of this reunion/evolution. In any case, I don’t think this is a ‘representation’ of the album, which I am eagerly awaiting. 🙂

  23. john b says:

    Firsy kudos and thanks for replying personally to my message, I wasn’t expecting that.
    I’ve thought about it and I just don’t believe the band re-united and made this record for the money. I’m not being naive, it’s just I can’t see that a band that wrote Take on Me, a James Bond Theme, plus countless other hits, would find money a driving factor anymore. They must be minted.
    If feel the reason must be creative – if you can still write songs like this then wouldn’t you want to remind the world how great you still are?
    As far as radio is concerned this song will be well supported in the UK by Radio 2 which is the biggest station in this country and is the ONLY station that will play a new a-ha single. It’s ideally suited to them. I think it will do well in Germany, which is probably their other most important market. I don’t know how they stand commercially in Norway. But it probably is a good single choice as it’s got loads of class, it’s memorable and is to me the classic a-ha sound [I hadn’t actually heard it when I provided my first post here as all the links had been blocked to the UK]
    Now I have heard it, I love it for me it’s the perfect and ‘true’ a-ha sound. I still don’t think it will be a hit, in the UK at least, but it will set the album up well.

  24. nicholas b says:

    I, like many have been a fan of their music since the 80s. I don’t understand why people feel cheated. I think its fairly obvious that this is not money motivated. Yes, they will make money to add to their riches, especially while touring but as many point out ‘Under the Makeup’ is not an immediate radio hit. I think it is up there with their best singles but someone wanting to make money wouldn’t put this amount of creativity into a song. They seem to be pretty intelligent people so I expect they can see that times have changed in the record industry and scoring huge hits with singles is unlikely. I noticed that they are advertising streaming this time which makes sence. When they announced the farewell, it did seem a gracefull way to bow out but on the strength of this single, I am happy they are back.

    Iloveaha – I understand that you feel upset after seeing what you thought was the farewell concert but I find it hard to believe that they engineered this from the start and deliberately decieved fans. Paul seemed to be hit the hardest by the ending of the band and appeared genuinely upset. I think attacking him was a cruel thing to do.

    The more I hear ‘Under the Makeup’, the better it gets. It does sound very fitting after Butterfly. Some of the best strings on an a-ha recording since High and Low.

  25. @Lax: Interesting insight and a very possible rationale for a-ha choosing “Under the makeup” as a lead single. I almost wish the gap between the lead single and the album was not so long. Either that, or a second lead single needs to be released at more or less at the same time as that of the second album.

  26. @john b: I too get the feeling that money was not a strong motivator but I imagine that the potential for some commercial value was something that they recognized. It may have been one of those things like “this needs to be a part of a-ha’s legacy”. I agree that money was probably not a motivator. Paul vaguely spoke to the rationale of the comeback at the press conference in Berlin but I think he should have been a LOT more specific to address the cynicism that was quite expected.

    Thank goodness for BBC Radio 2. It has given credibility a chance. We have no terrestrial radio equivalent to BBC Radio 2 in the US. Hence, many of these veteran acts have no hope of having their new material see the light of day in the commercial mainstream in the US. That was probably one of the many reasons we felt the need to launch Radio Creme Brulee. Just out of curiosity, how did you discover us?

  27. @nicholas b: I think it would have been interesting to get a glimpse into the conversations and the communication between the band members that led to this reunion. I agree that a creative spark must have been at the root of it. I wonder whose creative spark it was and why that person didn’t think of releasing it as a solo track – especially since all three members have had their own musical projects independent of a-ha.

  28. marilyn reilly says:

    I have been an a-ha fan from the beginning and have seen many concerts over the years besides meeting the band numerous times.I love this single!I really think their music is evolved through the years and this is just another stage in that revolution.We all change in life and so does our music tastes.I think a-ha is in a stage of their lives when they can embrace different kinds of music.In the end I can just say that it it’s beautiful to listen to and the words really will touch a cord in many people.The sweeping orchestra just puts the finishing touch on Mortens beautiful vocals.Being from the USA and not getting easy access to their concerts without spending a ton of money to go outside the country this is a great thing to have new material from them. I know the new cd in September will be awesome!

  29. @marilyn: We have high hopes for the new material too…I doubt the three of them would have reunited to release something substandard. September cannot arrive soon enough. Just out of curiosity, how did you discover our radio station and blog? We would love to know!

  30. July says:

    So some of us think a-ha cheated on us…
    As a huge supporter of the band from day one I don’t feel that way and thank God!
    When I think back to the last a-ha concert I attended in Cologne on 27.09.2009 I have to say it was a great one. Maybe a bit too professional, but still so great!
    I remember standing in front of the stage in the 4th row of the Lanxess Arena how it is like losing your heart again and again – song after song – feeling clearly that’s the end INDEED.
    But: How can I feel cheated???
    It was in the air to breath, that something was broken within the band…
    My Morten looked clearly depressed, Paul seemed too focused on his guitar and Mags struggled to find the few words the audience expected to hear.
    You had to be blind not to see: The limit was reached.
    No, I didn’t feel cheated back in the day and I don’t feel cheated now.
    On the contrary! 5 years later I know exactly a-ha NEEDED to split.
    5 years later I feel blessed and I’m thankful more than ever to have them back with a stunning song like “Under the makeup”!
    Looks like God responded to all my prayers with “yes” after all. Thank you, Jesus!
    Do a-ha want to make some more money? I don’t care one bit.
    But even so, I don’t see what’s wrong in that in the first place.
    I’m not 15 anymore. But everything I’ve got from a-ha through the years as an ability and inspiration to feel, to think, to analyze, to discover, to grow, to live for is priceless and can’t be paid with all the money in the world. They really shaped me as a person and are an inseparable part of me.
    What I can give them in return are my deepest love, loyalty and respect. And they have it all.
    I’ll continue to pray for them to stay, even after the “Cast in steel” tour… For a life time.

  31. This song is everything I look for and more from A-ha…they always give us something new not something rehashed from the past. Lyrically, vocally and musically this song goes straight to the core of your soul. I have been a fan since the beginning and there is no other voice that will ever to compare to that of Morten Harket. I cannot wait for the album I am sure they have quite a few surprises in store for us. I have a strange feeling this will turn out to be their best album yet. That being said they will leave us wanting even more. Thanks guys for giving it one last go for all the fans all over the world that love you so much. Radio Crème Brulee thanks for giving those of us in the USA and around the world to hear their awesome music everyday! Also, Thank you for supporting and helping us bring back A-ha to the USA and Canada!

  32. Clara Dodson says:

    Listening again for the 100+ time of Under the Make Up, and I can’t help but be taken back to the time when my Momma would listen to the great composers such as Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven as she instructed me to close my eyes and listen with my heart, to feel the music and be carried away.

    That is exactly what I do every time Under The Make Up is played. I stop what I am doing and listen to the violins, woodwinds, brass, percussion, keyboard, guitars and the lyrics that Mr. Waaktaar wrote to tell, for me, a heart of anguish and hoping for love to return. But the way Mr. Harket’s voice blends with these instruments and sings these lyrics travels to those places in my heart and mind to create such a mix of feelings that carries me away to a place of ecstasy.

    In all my years and the variety of music I have grown up listening to, I have to say that this latest song Under The Make Up has it all, the music, the lyrics to convey feelings, but the main component is the distinct “VOICE of Aha” Mr. Morten Harket.

    Thank you, A-ha for coming back together and hopefully you will see it in your heart to travel back to the USA for concerts that so many of us would love and hope to be a part of.
    Thank you Radio Crème Brulee for playing this magnificent song and keeping A-Ha out there fr us.

  33. Cristina Moriguchi says:

    I’m a fan from Brazil, very very contryside, I’ve been listening to a-ha since 89. Despite all the discussion about ending and returning, and marketing, money, I feel as Clara Dodson posted here, every single word. a-ha’s music helped me in many delicate moments of my life in these almost 30 years. Thank you guys for making music that catches and touches our hearts. I think this is the most important thing.

  34. @July: My sincere apologies for the delayed acknowledgment of your comment. I think all bands can do with a hiatus. My guess is that at the age at which these guys needed time apart, they probably figured they would be too old to reunite later and 25 years seemed like a milestone – so they called it quits. The demand for more a-ha absolutely was there in the last few years too so yes, it is better to have them back and I certainly don’t feel cheated at all. I have only seen them once – and that was in New York in 2010. I left the show with a lump in my heart thinking this would be the last. No US dates have been announced yet but I am hoping we get lucky again in the US – just like we did a few years ago.

  35. @Debbie: Really hoping that the album is an eclectic “mixed bag”.

  36. @Clara: The song has definitely become a grower and the cinematic orchestration is incredibly addictive.

  37. @Cristina: I have always been amazed by the traction that a-ha has had in Brazil over the years. I am so glad they’ve enjoyed that level of success there. Who would have guessed these Scandinavians would have connected so deep with South Americans. I think it is brilliant. Based on the Brazilian tour dates, it looks like fans there are being rewarded for decades of loyalty by folks like yourself. Thanks so much for the comment!

Leave a Reply