Album Title: Minor Earth | Major Sky
Running Time: 58m 36s
Track listing: 1 Minor Earth, Major Sky; 2 Little Black Heart; 3 Velvet; 4 Summer Moved On; 5 The Sun Never Shone That Day; 6 To Let You Win; 7 The Company Man; 8 Thought That It Was You; 9 I Wish I Cared; 10 Barely Hanging On; 11 You’ll Never Get Over Me; 12 I Won’t Forget Her; 13 Mary Ellen Makes The Moment Count
I wonder how many people would identify a-ha as pioneers of pop music in the 80s. Sure, we had Wham!, Bros, New Kids on the Block and other popular music “bands” who scored huge success and appealed to a broad market, but none of these bands had the raw talent of the Norwegian trio. In guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, a-ha have a songwriter of immense talent, and with skilful keyboardist and fellow-songwriter Magne he has written classic tunes like ‘Take On Me’, ‘Sun Always Shines On TV’, ‘Hunting High and Low’ and ‘I’ve Been Losing You’. The vocal executioner though has always been the main focus of the band – Morten Harket. The Scandinavian sex symbol has a unique voice that helped make so many of the songs unforgettable.
It is fifteen years since the release of their multi-platinum debut album, and these three men have matured into their late-thirties/early-forties now. It’s hard to believe. “Minor Earth, Major Sky” is their first release in seven years after a self-imposed break aimed at rejuvenating those creative juices. Has it worked?
The title track kicks us off in rather excellent style – style being the key word. Terrific keyboard and bass work from Magne and Paul in this mid-tempo story of not belonging in the vast universe. ‘I can’t see me in this empty place/Just another lonely face/I can’t see me here in outer space/It’s so hard to leave a trace’ – perhaps a reference to the somewhat invisible existence of the band in the first half of the nineties. Perhaps just a reference to the late-twentieth century disorientation that many people feel.
The loneliness continues into ‘Little Black Heart’, a haunting tune about loss and doubt, Paul’s subtle guitar refrain hitting all the right notes. A relationship gone bad – ‘I never saw sunlight burn as bright/I never felt darkness the way I feel it tonight’ – self-loathing or perhaps pity – ‘You say it’s getting better/You say it’s alright/But I never felt darkness the way I feel it tonight/My little black heart’.
‘Velvet’ is a beautifully performed ballad that registered as a hit single and was featured in the 2001 movie, “One Night at McCools”. Originally released in 1996 by Paul’s own side-project, Savoy, this re-recording’s main differentiation is its more polished musical and vocal feel.
But the standout tune is comeback single ‘Summer Moved On’ – a strong concoction of beat, emotion, diverse vocals, strings and even a touch of flamenco guitar! Again the song deals with a-ha’s favourite topics of loss, sadness and regret. The emotional chorus of ‘Stay, don’t just walk away/And leave me another day’ is difficult to get out of your head. The bridge is just as memorable – ‘Moments will pass/In the morning light/I found out/Season’s can’t last/And there’s just one thing/Left to ask’.
We move up a notch with the faster-paced ‘The Sun Never Shone That Day’ with it’s foot-tapping chorus and unique strains of Morten’s voice making you wonder where he pulls the notes from! Clearly something that Savoy would have released on their own album (and indeed it is co-written by Paul and his fellow Savoy member, and wife, Lauren), it fits in well enough but is the weakest of the opening tunes.
Lyrically, ‘To Let You Win’ is absolutely outstanding and almost poetic. ‘You know I always had the strength to fight/But I got tired of the wars at night/Thinking they would end if I gave in/But I wasn’t strong enough/To let you win’, Morten mourns, almost croaking his disdain. When he admits ‘I thought you couldn’t love a man who’d lost’ and ‘It used to scare me to wake up wondering/If I’d forgotten what I was fighting for’ you see that he is a man torn by his desire for peace but not at the cost of his own self-respect.
‘The Company Man’ takes a while to grow but eventually it should work for you. A typical story of ‘artist loathes record executive’, one wonders if a-ha are being artistic or abstract. ‘Songs came out of our mouths/And into his hands’ – a clear expression of unhappiness at how artistic freedom are sold down the river for the mighty dollar. And conceivably another reference to the band’s fall from grace: ‘And we all come down/Don’t make a sound as we hit the ground’. Good stuff.
The powerful ‘Thought That It Was You’, is another sleeper – a song that’s musically and lyrically rich, and just like with ‘To Let You Win’, from the pen of Morten Harket. The dark, bleak lyrics (‘My shadows, they’re not new/My soul’s split in two’; ‘There’s a place we used to go/That’s where I throw our ashes now’; ‘Sometimes I felt so sure/When I opened up your doors/That there’d been no one there before’) create a phenomenal visual, religious image. The chorus – ‘You know my deepest sin/You’ve seen me deep within/So fill me now like wind/And let the miracle begin’ – is stirring and inspirational. Remarkable.
‘I Wish I Cared’ showcases Harket’s incredible vocals again, this time riding a typically mid-tempo Magne Furuholmen tune (‘You don’t know my destiny/You can’t see what I can see’; ‘This is how it has to be/No more us and no more we’. Decent effort.
The well crafted lyrics of ‘Barely Hanging On’ are the best part of a decidedly average track – and that’s being kind. ‘I used to be so sensible on my own/Now I’m so sensitive it’s a joke/I used to be so confident in a crowd/Now I can’t say my own name aloud’, crows Morten as he picks through the ashes of his life. I think the album could have done without this number.
The trio that close off the album are terrific. ‘You’ll Never Get Over Me’ is completely irrepressible with it’s beautiful chorus – probably the best on the album. The lyrics are functional enough (‘You say you want some fun/You’re not the only one’; ‘And you say you wanna run/You’re not the only one’) but they take a back seat to the extraordinary melody and rhythm.
‘I Won’t Forget Her’ is a little dated sounding, and indeed might have worked better as an acoustic or piano ballad, but it’s funky and catchy enough.
Closing off the album is the very different sounding ‘Mary Ellen Makes the Moment Count’. The Beatle-esque acoustics and keyboards lend a mysterious and gloriously ponderous aura and the startling honesty of the lyrics are enough to make you stop and think about your own raison d’etre. ‘The world’s full of lonely people’, says Morten. How right he is. Maybe it’s okay to be one of them.
While this record is more of a throwback to the over-produced 80s albums, there is enough contemporary influence here to please both new and old fans. I suppose the failure of their previous, more rock-based albums (“East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and “Memorial Beach”) prompted a-ha to try and find a good blend of both 80s and 90s a-ha. They have certainly done this here. There’s no doubt it is a brilliant record but are we going to have to wait 7 years for the next one?