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