[Album Review] “Lifelines” – a-ha

Lifelines - a-haAlbum Title: Lifelines
Artist: a-ha
Year: 2005
Running Time: 61m 34s

Track listing: 1 Lifelines; 2 You Wanted More; 3 Forever Not Yours; 4 There’s a Reason For It; 5 Time and Again; 6 Did Anyone Approach You?; 7 Afternoon High; 8 Oranges on Appletrees; 9 A Little Bit; 10 Less than Pure; 11 Turn the Lights Down; 12 Cannot Hide; 13 White Canvas; 14 Dragonfly; 15 Solace

The unlikely juggernaut that is the a-ha comeback continues apace with their seventh studio album, “Lifelines”. Yeah, that’s right. I said seventh. I know the majority of people think that the band’s career started and ended with ‘Take On Me’ but over 20 hit singles later, their still putting out the type of music that puts many of the bland acts dominating the charts these days to shame.

Following on from the incredible platinum success of 2000’s “Minor Earth | Major Sky”, Harket and Co have shifted gear a little by sharing out songwriting and production duties more widely. This has led to a record that on paper should be disjointed and confused, but in practice, conversely, sounds more cohesive than their previous release.

For a change, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy does not dominate the songwriting duties as Morten, and especially Magne, have between them written more than half of the album. If there were ever any doubts about the songwriting abilities of Harket and Furuholmen, they have been somewhat laid to rest on “Lifelines”. Yes Magne, we still remember ‘The Way We Talk’. It’s hard to forget.

Having said that, as regards writing, the records best moments are shared across the board. Album opener and title track, ‘Lifelines’ (written by Magne), is a phenomenal, heart-felt cri de coeur. Morten’s distinctive, seductive vocal pleads with the listener to live their lives (‘What do you see?/What do you know?/One sign, what do we do/Just follow your lifeline through’).and to take the good with the bad (‘What if it hurts?/What then?/One sign, what do you say/Don’t throw your lifelines away’).

Magne’s musical imagery remains haunting elsewhere with the excellent ballad ‘White Canvas’, a philosophical study of life and love (‘Your life is a canvas/The colour is you’), and the whimsical ‘Dragonfly’, a song he originally wrote for the soundtrack of a Norwegian movie, but which gets re-recorded here with Morten on vocal duty. Best not to mention the lyrics on this one, but the melody is sweet.

Magne and Morten collaborate on the accusational dance-tune ‘You Wanted More’, and the first single, ‘Forever Not Yours’. ‘You Wanted More’ portrays the frustration of a man who has given everything to a relationship only to discover that it was not enough (‘I loved the sun/I loved the rain/I gave it up, but all in vain; we had it all/you gave it up/you wanted more’). The mid-track electronic-vocal garbage is pretty funky too.

The latter sees a-ha in familiar territory, a man on the verge of leaving his girl, describing the pain he feels (‘hold me tight/it’s a lonely night’). There’s definitely a specific dose of reality in the line ‘Memories, they keep coming through/The good ones hurt/more than the bad ones do’ – something we have probably all experienced at some stage. And just in case there was any doubt, he tells her ‘I’ll soon be gone now/Forever not yours’). It’s a wonderful, thoughtful lament and a testimony to a-ha’s tight and focused sound, something that maybe wasn’t as apparent in the past.

Morten also successfully weighs in with the catchy 80s vibe in ‘Cannot Hide’ – ludicrous lyrics maybe (‘Can you see me babe/Standing in the light/I feel your cat’s eyes on me/Phosphor in the night’) – but a likeable groove all the same.

Meanwhile, Paul’s smaller than usual contribution is now without considerable success. He produces arguably the albums best moments with ‘Did Anyone Approach You?’ and ‘A Little Bit’. The former is a dazzling dance-rock tune that makes up for more disappointing lyrics (‘Did anybody feel you/Did anybody deal you; Did anyone approach you/Did anybody coach you’) by landing a knockout blow with its classic hook and a military-beat that’ll wear the soles out on your shoes.

On the flip side is ‘A Little Bit’, a beautifully crafted, multi-layered power-ballad – possibly one of a-ha’s finest moments. Beginning with just an acoustic guitar, the song builds powerfully with some electric chords, drum, keyboards, bass and great harmonies until the final crescendo – one that’ll raise the hairs on your neck. ‘Everywhere you look/The pages of a book/Everything she took/Never let it keep you down/You’re holding out for news/All broken up and bruised/A loser born to lose’.

The light-rock feel of ‘There’s a Reason For It’ is certainly a grower – even if the lyrics range from functional to amusing. Trying to explain away how life has turned out so bad, ‘Don’t know why it took a sudden turn/Didn’t seem to be a big concern’, Paul’s wit returns just in time when he observes that ‘Everyone is all too well/All well-adjusted people, can’t you tell/Everything is all too fast/Just add water, nothing’s built to last’.

‘Less than Pure’ takes a while to get going but delivers if you give it a chance. A lot grittier and dirtier than you are used to hearing from the Norwegians, the electronic beats drift over a growling, guitar drone and thumping bassline to great effect. Although seemingly about a night out on the town (‘We’re gonna go downtown/I hear this great new place has opened up’), it seems to be metaphoric for a dead-end relationship. ‘When we get there/I don’t know /it’s taking ages’, Morten opines before telling us that ‘The place in question is hard to find/Not a cab-ride to the door’ as if throwing in the towel. He doesn’t pull punches – ‘You wonder in your doubtful mind/Is it really worth all that and more’. Finally he shows us his sin – ‘And our minds are growing wearier/And our hearts are less than pure’. Very underrated cut.

While Paul has come up trumps with the above recordings, he is surprisingly responsible for some of the album’s least impressive work. ‘Time and Again’ is reminiscent of ‘I Wish I Cared’ from “Minor Earth | Major Sky”, but trails in the latters wake. It might be the linear feel, perhaps the functional lyrics (as you’ve already guessed Paul’s lyrics disappoint more than they enthral on “Lifelines”) , but there is just something missing. Likewise, the summer tune ‘Afternoon High’ also fails to excite too much, although it is cheery enough not to offend and it is something different – and at least he’s got his head around writing something a little abstract – ‘Daylight hits the corner of your mind/Steals the thoughts you thought no one could find/Close your eyes and it will rob you blind’.

The Magne/Morten effort, ‘Oranges on Appletrees’, is the most confusing piece of work on the album. From the sweeping, almost epic piano and strings introduction, to the bizarre lyrics (‘bugs that mate with bumblebees’), tongue is clearly kept in cheek. Telling the familiar story of environmental disaster, it amuses lyrically, and musically. It’s not a classic, but manages to engage the listener through its quirky ideas.

Anneli Drecker guest-duets on ‘Turn the Lights Down’, a not-too shabby love song that tugs at the usual heartstrings. When there are occasional lapses in momentum they are easily overcome by the charm of two very talented vocalists. Its got hit single written all over it – a luscious chorus (‘I just want to sleep by your side/it makes me feel so alive/I just want to sleep for awhile’) and a particularly sweet and incisive mid-section (‘So easy to love from a distance/Hard to be near when you can/Impossible now to get back to where we began’)

Closing the album is the Magne-penned ‘Solace’, a poignant, string-touched ballad that reminds somewhat of the “ME|MS” closer, ‘Mary Ellen Makes the Moment Count’ – a lonely girl who embraces her loneliness as it is what she is most familiar with. Some great lyrical touches here. The message, much like in the opener ‘Lifelines’, is not to waste time feeling sorry for yourself (‘You’re wasting the moment/Biding your time/No-one got ahead/Standing in line’) and that there is light at the end of the tunnel (‘These moments of solace/They won’t last’). Just in case you don’t believe him, the tune ends with the lesson: ‘You’re hoping for solace/Well just look around/Everyone here is/Standing in line’.

In a nutshell, “Lifelines” is a strong and worthy record. Probably a little more bloated than it should be, two or three of the weaker tracks could have been kept for “b-sides”. But to ignore the quality of the three singles (‘Did Anyone Approach You?’, ‘Lifelines’ and #1 single, ‘Forever Not Yours’) and the strong supporting cast (‘A Little Bit’, ‘Less Than Pure’, ‘Solace’ and ‘You Wanted More’), is to miss out on a band who are enjoying a new lease of life.

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