20 February, 2023

a-ha - ranking highs and lows - Part 7: True North

No sooner had we (and 'we' of course still refers to Jesper/JSS and Jens Peter/JP - click here for a more detailed introduction) completed the full ranking of the 147 a-ha songs released so far before the band announced that they were releasing their 11th album, True North, on October 21st 2022.

True North album cover - band shots are just so 1980's

Now, although that messed up the ranking of the previously released songs we were of course still super excited by the prospect of 12 fresh tracks from our favorite band in the whole world. We'll be the first to admit that since their first comeback in 2000 (with the Minor Earth Major Sky album) it's been the rule rather than the exception that we've greeted a new album release with a certain sense of apprehension and nervousness. a-ha's way of working in the past 20 years with increasingly sporadic collaborations and a strong 'solo songs in a band context' feel has done precious little for a-ha as a band with a clear identity but still yielded some great songs - albeit in a disjointed way.

And with True North being born out of a conceptual idea by Magne Furuholmen and described as 'a letter from a-ha, from the Arctic Circle, a poem from the far north of Norway' with an environmental theme or a climate focus we were honestly a bit skeptical. Especially as it turned out that the concept only really applied to the six songs Magne contributed to the album, whereas the six songs written by guitarist Pål Waaktaar-Savoy didn't fit that description.

Furthermore, with the album recorded live over a few days with the help of a full philharmonic orchestra - and some post-recording studio production to polish things up - we knew it was going to be a very different experience, but not necessarily a bad one! The album was going to be accompanied by a movie that would be released to theatres around the world approximately a month before the album release, so fans got a chance to hear the songs in a sort-of live context before getting their hands on the album.

The movie left us feeling a bit... unsure of what to expect. There were some beautiful images but also a disjointed storyline, a narrative that suddenly shifted from a climate focus to a focus on band dynamics and a visual style that - in the concert footage - must have been a thrilling experience for anyone who prefers to see Morten filmed from below. The movie was directed by long-time a-ha photographer Stian Anderson so he's certainly familiar with the guys and their style, but we're not sure we need to watch the movie on repeat.

'But what about the music?' you might ask? Well, there were highs and lows. The movie featured 10 of the 12 songs, and two of them were already known from the Hunting High and Low concert tour, so all in all there were eight new tracks to take in - together with all the images, strange storylines etc. It was all a bit much, really! And therefore it was fantastic to get the physical album in our hands and play it without any interference from the visuals.

So after having listened to the songs intensely for a week we were ready to rank the 12 songs which you can find in podcast form by searching for 'a-ha: ranking highs and lows' on your favorite podcast app or simply click here. This blog post is our letter to the world from below the Arctic Circle, a letter from the relatively, but not completely, high North. Enjoy (we hope)!


True North

JSS: It's always sad when you have to put a song at the bottom of the ranking. Last time we had to start at number 147, so luckily this time the worst song is 'only' at number 12. But it's the TITLE track, dammit. It's probably only rivalled by Foot of the Mountain when it comes to lowest ranked title tracks, and I even think I like Foot of the Mountain a little bit better than this one.

Anyone can hear that it's a rip-off of Stay On These Roads - or a sequel if you want to call it that. But let's start with the positives first: The verses are pretty nice with some nice notes and a nice bridge, but then it hits you: The chorus. It has to be the most boring thing I have heard from a-ha in many years. I'm not always a fan of Morten chasing the soaring vocals and high notes, but this is simply too bland and the melody line simply isn't good enough.

If the intention is to have this cold, wintery feeling come through then the song has succeeded. I know Magne likes to hear Morten's voice in this cold, melancholic tone, but here it simply just doesn't sound good. I felt it already when we watched the movie in the cinema and I was so bored by this one. This song just doesn't grow on me. It just too close to Stay On These Roads

JP: When we first heard this in the cinema we were both sort of shocked that it sounded like a rip off of Stay On These Roads, but hearing how Magne has described it in interviews as a sister song to Stay On These Roads it’s of course fully intentional. And I actually respect that and think that it’s an interesting idea – almost an intertextual reference to an earlier work. Pål is no stranger to that either, albeit in a somewhat different way. I have no problem with that.

When we ranked the a-ha catalogue in the first season there were a bunch of songs I described as second cousins to Driftwood or cousins twice removed, and those links or similarities can be quite intriguing. Sometimes they are obvious, sometimes it’s much more of an individual feeling. But here it’s obviously very clear.

I just find the song boring. To stay with the analogy of the sister to Stay On These Roads: True North is the safe and a bit bland sister, the one you go for or marry if you can’t handle the big feelings and mood swings of the dramatic and beautiful older sister. You’ll have a simpler and steadier life, but you’re almost guaranteed to also get a bit bored and annoyed after some time because she just repeats the same things over and over again. And not only that: You are even forced to adopt her annoying daughter called Living At The End Of The World, part 2. I at least hear a link to that song from the Cast In Steel album as well. And that’s when I start to question the longevity of the relationship I’m going to have with True North – the song, not the album.

Lyrically it doesn’t do anything for me either. I know that quite a few fans think it’s beautiful both musically and lyrically but I can’t connect with it at all. And the bridge to the chorus is possibly the worst on the album – the “You just have to believe” part just sounds like it’s poorly suited for Morten’s voice. And as someone who grew up very close to a small village that was built by fishermen, I take some offense to the claim that “good sailors always return”. Many good sailors have lost their lives to the sea due to no fault of their own. I know that’s probably not what Magne means but it just sounds wrong.

Anyhow: I would label True North as the worst – or least good – title track of any a-ha album so far, only rivalled by Foot of the Mountain.


Bluest of Blue

JP: According to one of the many interviews around the release this was the song that started the whole True North process for Magne, who wrote the song, which he released as a solo demo on his Instagram account in February 2021, more than half a year before the recording of the album. Bluest Of Blue was also the track that attracted Morten’s interest, as he felt that it would be wrong not to do anything with it so he started working on Magne's pieces and it became a project.

I've seen Magne referring to Bluest of Blue as "a forward-thinking message to the younger generation, including my children and prospective grandchildren”, so no doubt it’s quite personal to him, but I must admit that it largely fails to grab me.

I’ve seen some reviews that refer to the song as divine and beautiful, and I also remember that it was quite catchy when we first heard it in the cinema, but catchy isn’t necessarily the same as great. Again I simply get tired of the song before it’s finished because the same melody line or riff just keeps playing line after line, verse after verse – and even the violin towards the end plays the same theme.

What obviously redeems it somewhat is an interesting chorus structure with a duet-like sea shanty-feel that you could imagine being sung or played through generations of sailors. But then the drums or the beat comes in and make the verses too plain sounding again. It’s like if Mumford & Sons did an impression of a-ha singing a song to a mermaid.

JSS: It's a general issue for me on many of the songs by Magne on this album that they become quite repetitive, especially the string and piano arrangements. 

When I first heard the chorus in the cinema I thought it was super cheesy and super corny, but then when I heard it a few more times I actually decided to hear it as more Beatles-esque, because it sounds a lot like The Beatles. I'm quite torn here because sometimes it sounds really cool to me and sometimes just too cheesy.

There's a nice melody line and I like where the drums kick in from the second verse which lifts the song and gives it some energy and saves Bluest of Blue from just being a comma on the album. The bridge leading in to chorus is nice as well, but it's not a favorite of mine. I hope the song will grow on me - and to be fair, it HAS already grown a bit - but I feel that this is still the right rank for Bluest of Blue.


Between the Halo and the Horn

Between the Halo and the Horn - one of the many singles from True North to receive a virtual release only, but no one bothered to make a single cover so here's a snap from the video... God, how we miss physical singles!

JSS: I first heard this one as a demo on Magne's Instagram and I thought "this would be a nice song for a-ha", but I'm not sure that I don't prefer Magne's own version of the song.

It's a song that's really growing on me. I think the notes for Morten's voice are too long and pitched a little too high but all in all it's a nice song with a nice vibe. I really like the second verse where Morten sings a slightly different melody which sounds really cool, and there's an electric guitar or a string instrument of some sorts somewhere that adds texture.

But all the "uuh uuh" is maybe over-used a little bit, but I would describe Between the Halo and the Horn as a pleasant song and one that feels very nice where it's placed on our ranking.

JP: Apparently this was one of the first songs Magne e-mailed to Morten who thought it was “a real nice piece”, and according to Magne it’s an “abstract imagery of a world at odds”, which I get.

And I actually do like the idea or image that we human beings have both the angel side and the devil side in us – the halo and the horn – and that life is a balance between doing what we know is right and what we feel like doing. That probably fits quite well with the climate change theme or describes how we try to balance consideration for the future with our own here-and-now needs.

And upon first listen I was actually pleasantly surprised with the verses and chorus, but already by the second time I started to grow tired of it. I liked Morten’s lower range in the first verse, but again there is this overuse of a riff or theme in the melody, and by the time we get to the second verse and the chorus we’re back in a vocal range that in my view is where Morten these days sounds worst, or least good or whatever you want to call it.

Also, I find the drums just simply boring. Musically I get a vibe from this similar to “The End Of The Affair” from the expanded version of Cast In Steel and that was never a favorite of mine. Neither will Between The Halo And The Horn be.


You Have What It Takes

You Have What It Takes - except for an interesting single sleeve...

JP: This one was also already released as a solo demo on Magne’s Instagram account in April 2021, so six months before the recording with a-ha, and it was also one of the new songs that were presented during the HHAL anniversary tour, so it's one that we've had some time to become acquainted with. 

According to Magne it’s a message to the younger generation that we’re sorry we messed up the planet, but we have faith in you to do what is needed. You have what it takes.

You Have What It Takes seems to be loved by many fans and also got a fair share of very positive comments in the various reviews of True North, but there were certainly also those who didn’t find it very interesting. And honestly that includes me.

The verses are nice enough – but all I can hear is the melody that sounds like it’s heavily influenced by the chorus from Nirvana’s In Bloom. Have a listen and see if you get the same feeling. But the chorus with “Your love is the one thing that’s never in vain” is among the moments on the album that I struggle with the most. Nothing feels right to me here – I feel as if I’m trapped inside a personal development book or a self-appreciation workshop and can’t get out. I know some cherish it as among the finest moments on the album but I must admit that I’m left unaffected by it. So in that sense it's one of those strange cases where you can understand why people like a song (a lot!) and what they see in it, but it's just not your own taste...

JSS: Obviously this is not a song with a message that you want to stand up against because it's a very positive message. But with stuff like this... often you either love it or you hate it. I wouldn't say I hate it, though, but it doesn't do a lot for me. But having listened to it a number of times now it draws me a little bit closer with every listen. It really also helps when you have the whole album artwork and lyrics in front of you.

I don't think You Have What It Takes was the best choice for a second single from the album. It's kind of similar in tone at least to I'm In, the first single, and I would have loved for True North to have been promoted with more variation. But it's a nice song and it's still growing on me.


I'm In

I'm In single cover - they didn't waste money on making different designs...

JSS: The first single from the album, and I'm not totally in. My wife claimed that I wouldn't even have given it a second listen if it hadn't been a-ha, and I have to agree with her. But it IS a-ha, so I'll let the song grow as big on me as it can get. And after having listened to it numerous times it HAS grown a bit. It's not my favorite style for an a-ha song, but it has some of this a-ha melancholy that I like, but as a first single I wasn't too crazy about it. 

The middle part of the song is too repetitive. I want them to be more adventurous, play some different notes, do something unexpected. It goes through eight bars of the same notes on the piano and it's a waste of 30 seconds or so because nothing happens. It becomes boring to me at least.

JP: If you just look at the title it almost seems like a response to Pål’s Under The Makeup from Cast In Steel, where Pål’s lyrics can easily be interpreted as a message to Magne: “If you wanted out / Didn’t I let you go? If you wanted in / Didn’t I make it so?”

Well, this time Magne decided that he’s in, and therefore we sit here with a new album. I know that’s not what I’m In is about, but it’s just too apropos not to mention it. But honestly, I’m mostly out when it comes to this I'm In. The first minute sounds promising, but it didn’t take me more than that to get annoyed with the repetitive riff that seems to be played on different instruments but just on an endless loop either at the forefront or in the background. It’s monotonous in the same way as This Is Our Home from the Summer Solstice MTV Unplugged album was – or actually worse.

The chorus is nice, though, and admittedly a bit of an earworm which is of course good for a first single. But honestly, there are many earworms that are just plain annoying, and this is borderline. I do like Morten’s voice in the choruses, especially after the break, with the “Whatever you think you’re worth / However much it hurts” part as a small highlight and the lead-in to the chorus after the instrumental break is great. But the song just drags on for too long, and together with Foot Of The Mountain I would rank I’m In as the worst – or least good – lead single from an a-ha album.  

But what really puzzles me is that I'm In (and You Have What It Takes for that matter) is described by so many as “classic a-ha”. I honestly can’t see what’s classic about it. If we define “classic a-ha” as the first three albums or even the first five albums there’s nothing there that sounds anything like I'm In or You Have What It Takes.


Forest for the Trees

JP: Anyone who saw a-ha on the second leg of the Hunting High and Low anniversary tour is likely to have heard this one, and between this and You Have What It Takes, which was also played on the tour, it seemed that You Have What It Takes was most peoples’ favorite, but that’s far from the case for me.

To me, Forest for the Trees is lyrically and melodically superior and actually works even better in the somewhat more controlled album recording environment than in concerts, no doubt helped by the use of real strings and – probably – some studio overdubs, but it all makes for a richer sound.

Already from the concert version of the song it was clear that this was one of Pål’s strongest choruses of recent years, maybe also because the song as a whole follows a more traditional structure than many of his other songs seem to do, but at the same time the melody takes some highly unexpected turns, not least in the chorus. So in that sense it’s a straightforward song, but there’s nothing simple about it. To me there's a significant jump in quality from I’m In in rank 8 to Forest for the Trees in rank 7. Everything from here onwards are great songs!

The lyrics on Forest for the Trees are brilliant, thought-provoking and unusual. It’s funny that Pål should say that none of his lyrics on True North are about nature, climate change and the environment because Forest for the Trees could actually fit that theme with the point about how politicians and media drown us in details that makes us miss the whole. That can of course apply to many other things than climate, but if there’s one of Pål’s songs on True North that seems to fit the album concept – if you can call it that – then it’s Forest for the Trees. 

JSS: For me it's a compromise to put this in rank 7. I would have put it higher. I really like this song! The lyrics in the verses are on concept, and the chord change in the chorus on "forest - fooor the trees" is brilliant! I enjoy it every time I hear it, it's pure genius.

The whole feel of the song with the acoustic guitar... it has these little nuances. There are some repetitive elements where the verses begin which seems like something Pål has started doing more of in later years so that bugs me a bit.

It is of course possible that Forest for the Trees ranking-wise is being punished a bit for not being as new as the other songs, so the novelty has worn off. But it’s a great song and one has been boosted a lot in the final version by the strings and bigger orchestration.


As If

As If video - As if they could be bothered to release it as a real single

JSS: One of Pål's songs and actually the one I would have swapped with Forest for the Trees in terms of ranking. This is my least favorite of Pål's songs on True North

First of all I don't think Morten's voice sounds good especially in the first verse. It sounds a little off key on some of the notes and it gets a bit boring to me. The chorus is a bit bland, but then when I got the physical album with the lyrics in front of me it started to grow on me. But to me this is almost Eurovision material! The chorus is so normal and average and gets too long in the end like You'll Never Get Over Me from Minor Earth Major Sky.

And the way Morten sings "As if, as if, as if" six times in a row... you already know from the first note how he's going to continue. You know the notes before he sings them, you know the variations he's going to do. And that's the big problem for the song.

But after having heard it 10-15 times (at the time of doing the ranking) it's grown on me like so many of the other songs on the album. But it's not likely to be the song I'm going to listen to the most.

JP: I disagree with Jesper on so many levels on As IfI really, really, really like this one. And with three “really’s” you can hear that I’m close to saying “I love this one”. Time will tell if it turns into love, but it’s not at all unlikely. It has so many things that I appreciate, and I originally had it higher on the list. The fact that it’s ended up here in rank 6 is partly compromise but partly also because some of the other songs have grown more on me since the release of the album. So As If hasn’t lost anything, but others have gained more.

The verses give me flashbacks to some of the early demos, I especially get a Presenting Lily Mars vibe, and the lyrics fit both with Pål’s style of later years but also with some of those early day songs. Somehow it transcends time. 

And I really, really, really like (love?) the lyrics as well. The way I understand it, Pål describes a range of unlikely things – like emptying a lake with a spoon – to say “as if I wouldn’t be there for you” or “as if I’d just give up on you”. I don’t know if that’s what is meant, but to me it makes sense and it’s such a unique way to say it.

The strings arrangement is wonderful as well and contributes to one of the most intense and gratifying endings to an a-ha song in a long time. Contrary to Jesper I love the “As if” improvisations by Morten towards the end of the song, climaxing with the well-known and perfectly dosed falsetto. I almost get the image of an ageing boxer, a former champion, who steps into the ring and puts up one last great fight. He’s got nothing left to prove to anyone – maybe not even to himself – and whether he wins or loses is of no importance. But to me he wins, and it’s a clear goosebumps moment for me.

The reason why it ends up in number 6 is maybe also that it’s not one of the songs that pushes the boundaries for what a-ha is or can sound like the most. In that sense it’s slightly more traditional – but not unoriginal by any stretch of the imagination.


Make Me Understand

JP: Lyrically it’s like a Barely Hanging On pt. 2. Introversion, social anxiety, excuses for not participating in various events. Classic Pål.

An awesome chorus with the most dance-friendly, groovy beat I can recall in an a-ha song. I have said before that a-ha can be accused of many things but being funky is quite far down the list, but Make Me Understand is actually not too far away from funky. Or groovy at least. I could even see Pål write something like this for someone like Dua Lipa – with different lyrics, obviously – but given an even more contemporary production this could be a hit outside of our generation as well.

It also sounds like it’s the most electronic song on the album, which is a great way to change things up a bit. Excellent vocals by Morten with the lovely, deeper tone in the verses. I get the same feeling as the verses from the version of This Alone Is Love that has the chorus from Scoundrel Days on the Stay On These Roads Deluxe Edition album.

But also Pål’s backing vocals should get a special mention here. It almost sounds like it’s a full backing choir, and I could honestly see a tour with freshly arranged songs and a lush backup singer section to add more dynamic to the music.

Make Me Understand was an immediate favorite and I could personally have seen it go higher on the list as well, but it’s crowded up there. The question is of course if it will last, but for now it’s about the coolest I’ve heard a-ha in a very long time. 

JSS: The whole concept of the lyrics to me could read as a comment on Pål and Magne's relationship. This one kind of starts in the same way as As If, which I'm not too keen on, but I like the beginning of Make Me Understand better. It suits Morten's voice a bit better.

I have to stop saying that the songs are growing on me, but it's the same with this one: It gets better and better. I like the chorus, but it's almost too catchy for my taste. The middle section of the song is where the surprise is with the abrupt strings and the drums kicking in. And that reminds me - and maybe other keen a-ha fans - of the extended version of Train of Thought. So yes, Make Me Understand is really cool. 


Summer Rain

JSS: I have to say, I am SO overwhelmed by this song written by Magne. Last night when I listened to it I actually get a bit wet-eyed, because I love this song so much! It's by far the best song by Magne on this album, for me at least. 

Notice one very important thing here: Not only is the song really well written with maybe the best chorus on the album, it is also perfectly pitched for Morten's voice. The notes here are shorter than on almost all other songs by Magne on the album, and I often think that Magne has the wrong impression of where Morten sounds best or which notes fit his voice the best - with the exception of this one! This is where Morten really works these days and where he sounds super cool. 

Summer Rain to me sounds like a really, really good Duran Duran ballad as well. I also get some reminiscens to Depeche Mode and even... Belinda Carlisle. The drum sounds are perfect and the lyrics are really great. "We can get together if we swallow our pride". And the second verse is sung a little deeper than the first. It's all those small lefts and rights that make it so interesting.

This is a masterpiece in my mind!

JP: From the title alone this was the song composed by Magne I had the highest hopes for with the reference to the lyrics from Memorial Beach where his piano playing was absolutely wonderful. And Summer Rain doesn’t disappoint. It stands head and shoulders above any other song by Magne on True North. And like Jesper I also think that it's one of the songs written by Magne in the later years that fits Morten’s voice the best. It’s wonderful to hear the lower range.

I get a lot of Doors vibes, which I suppose is quite apropos since the imagery in the lyrics is very much one about opening doors to the other side and letting the bad things and the pain out. If the piano had been replaced by a Hammond organ or a vintage keyboard it would have been a perfect Doors tribute – with Morten evoking his best Jim Morrison barytone. But it could honestly also have been an outtake from Memorial Beach, and the short guitar solo sounds like something Magne and Pål could have come up with in the Bridges era.

Lyrically I read it as a comment on a-ha, their relationship and ways of working. “Now what we cannot solve we can set aside / Despite our differences we’re intertwined / Time will heal and the hurt subside” is just one example. “We can get together if we swallow our pride” is another. So it’s almost like it’s a comment to the way of working on True North.

If there’s ever another a-ha album after this then this is the sound I’d love for Magne to explore. The chorus is certainly among the best on True North, and it’s almost paradoxical that the song from Magne that – to me at least – has least to do with climate change concept album he had envisioned is by far the best.

Great, great song!


Oh My Word

JP: Ah, the forever highly anticipated album closer. It’s always a special song and historically rarely one that has disappointed. And that actually goes both for a-ha and for the album closers Pål has written for Savoy.

This one is another Pål composition and one that caught me a bit off guard. I didn’t know what to expect, but I don’t think it was this. That’s often a positive sign, and I just absolutely loved the title from before I heard the song.

I have read all the Burt Bacharach references, and I get that, and it could almost have been included on the Painted From Memory album Bacharach did with Elvis Costello as well, but I also think it’s a lot more than that.

I see Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire waltz across the ballroom or on a New York sidewalk in an old Hollywood movie in effortless elegance. But in some strange way I also hear early a-ha demos. It’s not that it sounds like any one of them in particular, but there’s something about the aura of the song.

It’s just a really, really beautiful piece. The lyrics “Heydays belong to the past / Only a fool could expect it to last” is just absolutely heart breaking. This is one of the songs that gave me goosebumps and almost made me a bit teary. 

Another very worthy but unusual album closer. Probably closest to You’ll End Up Crying but still very different. It’s not one of those songs that end an album with a bang or in a bombastic way but on a much more sombre, subdued note and one that makes me say “what did I just feel there?”

I can’t really find a better way to describe it than timeless and sentimental elegance, and I am thrilled that the a-ha universe is big enough to fit something like Oh My Word into it – it both fits the universe perfectly while at the same time expands it.

JSS: I agree with a lot of what JP says here. I also really like the waltzy feeling. This has the potential to be a new (Seemingly) Nonstop July classic for me. I really like the lyrics "The sun is rising / In the sky / Unsurprising / Yet it catches the eye". It's such a great addition to Summer Rain and it's fantastic range to have on an a-ha album that it can contain such different styles or songs but still somehow feel coherent.

And again, Morten's voice and vocal range on Oh My Word... For any potential future a-ha albums, please do more songs with Morten's voice in this range because it sounds amazing! 



JSS: What a song! It's almost hard to comprehend that such a great song can come from a band almost 40 years down the line. We've heard parts of the song earlier on Pål's Instagram account where it was a birthday gift for his sister. And it's just such a great appreciation for another human being: "She's my protector / Bad vibes rejector / Wise-crack injector / Bumblebee inspector". Those are just really wonderful lines and it all just adds to the praise I want to give to this song.

The strings score is amazing - kudos to Joe Mardin who did a wonderful job here and on all the songs by Pål on True North. He gets everything out of the full orchestra here.

As I also mentioned with Forest For The Trees there is a certain repetitive use of intros leading into verses and choruses which gets... maybe not annoying but I like it when there's more variation.

Special mention also to the drums by Per Hillestad who played with a-ha in the 90's - welcome back, my friend - and who does an amazing job on Bumblebee. The drums almost sound like they are in overdrive in places, but it's just fantastic.    

JP: What a fantastic song! And what a fantastic tribute to Pål's older sister Tonje who’s apparently always been one of his biggest supporters all the way back to the days where Pål became a less frequent attendee at the local high school because he wanted to focus on a musical career – something that wasn’t his parent’s biggest dream.
The lyrics are like a sudden flashback where an old memory just comes out of nowhere and you see something or someone from the past as clear as day. I think it’s one of those songs where the lyrics play an important role in my appreciation for it. I really like the melody, the wonderful arrangement, the subtle guitar (and again – the drums!), but the lyrics are just very, very lovely and loving and almost brought a tear to my eye. A protector, bad vibes rejector, bumblebee inspector, small bird befriender… What a wonderful person Tonje must be, and anyone would be lucky to have a person like that in their life.
I don’t think anyone else writes lyrics like this. It’s a very unique approach. And when you combine those lyrics with the fantastic strings, a sweet but unusual melody, Morten’s vocals and the intensifying finale then you have something very special. And I think Bumblebee is exactly that. Special.
But also the melody and the mood. The instrumentation. Just listen to the perfectly dosed guitar that leads into the 2nd verse or. It’s not intruding or pushy or anything. It just assumes its role and knows its place in the bigger sound picture.
Vocally it’s such a fantastic piece as well. Both the softer parts but especially as the strings start to intensify and Morten’s voice finds just the right raspy tone when he sings “Those times / It just hit me / They'll forever stay / Here with me”. You sort of expect the song to continue after that, but it’s done its job. And it’s done it perfectly.


Hunter In The Hills

Hunter In The Hills - we've borrowed this picture from Pål's Facebook/Instagram page which is the jigsaw puzzle that inspired the title of the song. 

JP: What an amazing song! This was one of the songs that left me most intrigued when we watched True North in the cinema. The obvious thing to note is of course the cool, jazzy, lounge-like arrangement that to me takes the song back to old Hollywood dinner shows with smartly dressed men and glamorous women sitting in those circular booths with a big band or a jazz ensemble playing on stage. Topped with some Brazilian jazz flavours as well. 

I love Hunter In The Hills for introducing a new sound to the a-ha universe – I’d even argue something new to the Waaktaar-Savoy universe as a whole – and the strange fit with the lyrics makes it even more intriguing. We may have said this before about other a-ha songs, but I don’t think you can find any other contemporary pop releases that sound anything like this. It’s like it refers both back in time and into the future, and that’s a rare quality. 

The lyrics are a bit puzzling, but I don’t mind that at all. And I love the images that are created with lines like “When I walked out that morning / The grass was wet from dew / Found a package in the mailbox / 'Saw this book and thought of you...'” That’s very Pål to me. 

And then there’s something interesting about the chorus. You would expect it to soar, lifted by Morten’s voice and deliver that almost cathartic feeling, but instead it only changes the pace or mood slightly and takes you somewhere completely different. In the book “Tårer fra en stein” by Ørjan Nilsson Pål talks about ”a kind of anti-hero chorus” instead of the “money-notes” that the listener is expecting. Pål refers to the chorus as “imploding”. And I tend to really love those anti-hero choruses, and if you listen to the Cast In Steel album I think there are some examples there as well with Door Ajar and Shadow Endeavors, so it’s something Pål seems to pursue intentionally, and not for lack of ideas.

Vocally I think Hunter in the Hills is another example of how Pål’s writing generally seems to fit Morten’s current voice better than Magne’s songs. I for one would disagree with the claim that Morten sounds best in an electronic setting. I think there’s a richness and texture to his voice when it’s placed against a backdrop like this with horns, groovy rhythms, and super organic production. And I love the small ad-libs in the instrumental part towards the end. It’s almost like in the old days.

And both the drums and strings are just excellent. 

JSS: My first thought was "this is a movie!" Hear this song I almost get that feeling of watching a movie. I mean, this one is genius. I love everything about this song. It's so smooth and cool and jazzy. Pål mentioned hos Hunter In The Hills and also Bumblebee are inspired by Brazilian music and I got goosebumps even the first time I heard this one and thought "Wow, this is amazing!".

There is nothing in this song I would change. The lyrics are sharp, the storytelling... the drums are amazing, the bass is perfect, the strings are wonderful, again thanks to Joe Mardin. And the chorus with the keyboard in the background and the break before the second verse - all of it just sounds so well-fitted. 

The middle part of the song is the highpoint for me with Morten's "Whooo!" and small ad-libs. You can just hear a very vibrant band as if they feel young again; they sound like they're really enjoying themselves and it really shows the engagement.

To me this track is close to a 10 out of 10 and over time it could maybe go into the all-time top 15 or top 20 of a-ha songs!

And there you have it: Our immediate ranking of the 12 songs on True North less than a week after it came out. The rankings may change over time but right now - at the time of posting the reviews - they sit rather stable.

So where does that leave us in terms of concluding on the album as a whole? Well, first of all we're still thrilled that a-ha took it upon themselves to actually find a recording format that worked for them so the rest of us would get 12 new songs to enjoy. That's not something we had expected, to be honest. We were never fans of the - in our view - somewhat forced climate concept or theme that was pulled over the True North project, which felt like it was something Magne wanted to pursue whereas Pål just wanted to get some more a-ha songs out there in world.

But if we look beyond that and just consider the songs for what they are we are left with an album of much higher quality than anyone could have expected at this stage in a-ha's career. Yes, we gravitate much more towards Pål's songs than towards Magne's, but that's just personal preference. Others will feel the opposite and others again will be a mix. The point is that whether you prefer one or the other style or sound it's all made with care, commitment, artistic visions and an incredibly high level of musical ambition. And when we first learned that a new album would be recorded we just hoped that maybe one or two of the songs would be of such a quality that they eventually could sneak into the all-time top 50 a-ha songs list, and THAT wish has certainly been granted! We have a couple of candidates for the all-time top 25, maybe even higher, and that's honestly more than anyone could have hoped for.

All the best,

JP and Jesper