Ageing gracefully and on their own terms, the Norwegians’ mastery of songwriting remains undimmed by the passing of the years
a-ha’s 11th album True North was introduced with a film of the same name. Featuring voiceover vignettes from the Norwegian trio over and around slo-mo shots of vast, dramatic seascapes, fjords, whales and fishing boats, it intersperses the album’s songs performed live with the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra with episodic scenes depicting the imagined titular ‘true north’ life. Recording an album with an accompanying film was, we’re told, inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 work Western Stars. While the two acts are of course contemporaneous, both first tasting global fame in the 1980s, the comparisons rather end there.
The disjointed resulting film, part ‘postcard from the north’ with occasional environmental points to make, part filmed live album, is best seen as an extended promotional video. But the album, like all albums, can be listened to without the visuals and explanations. In that standalone context, from the plaintive, soaringly melodic opening track I’m In, via harmonious love letter You Have What It Takes, to the waltzy and wispy closer Oh My Word, True North ties disparate songwriting together with thoughtful, effective and deeply woven orchestration and harmonics to create a cohesive, cinematic whole. And if a-ha’s debut album saw them strike out from Norway to the decidedly different climes of Sydenham in search of stardom, True North marks the band sailing slowly home underneath the guiding stars.
While there’s rarely any attempt to crank up beyond third gear – the chorus of Make Me Understand, complete with classic a-ha stabby synth hook, almost an exception – this is a contemplative, stately work befitting a band comprised now of sixtysomethings, with polished production giving space to the orchestral instruments. Not all of it lands on first listen, but these honestly crafted, unhurried songs deserve more than being relegated to the background. Lovely and varied musical flourishes abound; Bluest Of Blue’s vocal harmonies and the decision to leave the rhythm section’s inclusion until nearly two minutes’ gone show an earned confidence in their craft. Bumblebee – no relation to the Abba song of the same name – goes unusually for a full retro guitar-led sound, while the title track draws a line back to the pace and mood of Hunting High And Low.
Lyrics, broader in scope than a-ha have penned before, reveal a willingness to engage with the world and how we interact with it, while refraining from railing at generic bogeymen or resorting to unfocused anger. In I’m In, very much a song for these times, Morten Harket’s still preternaturally boyish tenor gives voice to lines that might come across as self-help homilies: “There are times, Good times after these… Don’t let the forces that pull us apart, Think they can win.” Elsewhere, Forest For The Trees opens with “I don’t live in a time, Where the truth prevails, Things just seem to happen, On an escalating scale, They play you for a fool, To weaken your resolve, Drowning you in details, To make you miss the whole.” That time being one of doomscrolling, 24-hour news and megathreats ranging from climate catastrophe to the death of democracy, where’s the word of a lie. Maritime references are scattered liberally throughout too, giving a poignant sense of a journey underway.
The a-ha of 2022 represented here is accordingly rather adjacent to the ‘80s pop world of Take On Me and The Sun Always Shines On TV in which they made their name and fortune. Affirmatory lyrics that can sometimes sound like self-help guides – You Have What It Takes the prime example – are clearly well-intentioned, but also hint at a handing-on of the baton, an acknowledgement that time has moved on. The band’s two songwriters Magne Furuholmen and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy these days each devote much time to painting, and True North notes their passage by, ageing gracefully and on their own terms, but with their mastery of songwriting undimmed by the passing of the years.