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a-ha
Foot Of The Mountain Iain Moffat , July 21st, 2009 06:43

Those of you that were around for Mortenmania might have a-ha pegged as being strictly the province of those screechy schoolgirls that French and Saunders so lovingly lampooned, while those of you that weren't may hold to the School Disco/Guilty Pleasures thinking that they were simply fromageurists par excellence. a-ha, however, tended to transcend such straightforward stereotyping, not to mention the traditional limitations of the pin-up popstrel, for any number of reasons: like their immediate squeal-stealing and Bond-scoring predecessors Duran Duran, they initially announced themselves with two remarkable (and, tellingly, genuinely enduring) albums. They also wore their acceptance of their teen constituency with the kind of endearingly accommodating bewilderment not seen since Haircut 100, and the pervasive melancholia of even the heyday hits suggested men who were far more brethren of the Bunnymen than Bros.

And so it is that, even almost quarter of a century on, they continue to intrigue and inspire in a fashion that many of their ostensible successors could never begin to dream of, and Foot Of The Mountain very much finds them continuing to play to their strengths. This may be the work of some men who are undoubtedly wealthy in both life experience and, well, wealth – 'Take On Me' alone must still keep the royalty powers-that-be occupied on a near-daily basis – but there's a consistent unease throughout. Indeed, it's fascinating to note that, lyrically, the album's most unambiguously upbeat offering is the "Hey, kids! Drugs!" delight of 'Riding The Crest' (though, paradoxically, even that's somewhat brought down by the fact that 'Real Meaning' revisits the themes and imagery of 'True Faith' later on). Elsewhere, however, 'Sunny Mystery' hints at some unspecified horror; the title track is rich with regrets; and 'Nothing Is Keeping You Here' – home to the tremendous verse, "From the world, detached / Unto a girl you latched / It never got too far . . ." – is positively a symphony of bleakness. Even by Scandinavia's arctic standards, this is a wintry affair.

Yet, as always, the trio have tools at their disposal to sidestep any descent into the indulgences of complaint-rock. For one thing, not only is Morten Harket one of the great Dorian Grays of music – honestly, only Grace Jones and perhaps Tina Turner's legs are this good an argument for the ageing process – but his thrillingly gymnastic voice has lost none of its plaintive suppleness. The first time he engages in his trademark register-vaulting (about four minutes in) it still stuns, and he papers smartly over the ludicrousness of 'Start The Simulator', not to mention making 'Shadowside' convince as a more arcane re-envisioning of the if-we're-not-together-Very-Bad-Things-will-happen motif of 'Beat Again'.

And then there are the almost supernaturally nimble pop instincts at play: 'The Bandstand''s Human League-flecked punchiness renders it uncannily contemporary; 'Mother Nature Goes To Heaven' welds some luscious reverb-ridden piano to a discreetly compelling motorik undertow; 'What There Is' is bona fide superior electro-sophistry, all gliding strings, controlled synth explosions and that sumptuously soaring vocal. Frankly, if somebody told you that the Pet Shop Boys had written it for Robyn they'd sound pretty convincing.

Admittedly, that's as close as they get here to the truly cherubic heights they've scaled as recently as 'Summer Moved On' or 'Forever Not Yours'. It could also be argued that there are plenty of perfectly good a-ha-esque performers doing the rounds at the moment anyway, what with a new Maximilian Hecker album due, Northern Portrait threatening to go rather more global and Polarkreis 18 finally getting launched in the UK. Still, it's hard to see even the most capable of pretenders becoming contenders to quite this degree, and this is a vital reminder of why a-ha are there to be cherished: the charm of being badly drawn boys might have broken them in the first place, but it's the adult artistry at their heart that's ensured they've remained the band that the Westlifes of the world will never be.

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