More about: A-Ha
When you’ve released a hit like 'Take On Me', I’d imagine it's tricky to keep working. That feeling that you’ll never do anything better must sit like a weight, with everyone waiting to hear that one song for the rest of your career like a high-expectation hoop to jump through. But a-ha managed to get past it. Since their boom in the mid-80s, the band have gone on to release 10 studio albums, with the upcoming True North making it 11. They still tour extensively, selling out venues worldwide with hoards of fans. And you could say that their new film ‘True North’ is a bold statement that the band are still taking creative risks and remaining passionate about art and music, but the result falls short.
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Somewhere between a documentary, a concert film and an extended music video, True North sees the band performing their new album semi-live with the Arctic Philharmonic. Set to stunning visuals of their home country, Norway, the sessions were filmed 90km above the arctic circle, colouring the film with incredible visuals of mountains and snow and harsh waves. If it was a nature documentary, I'd eat it up. Perfectly capturing the violence and beauty of arctic landscapes and the rural north of Norway, it’s moody and angsty and breathtaking, but totally at odds with the music.
Despite claiming to be inspired by the landscape, cracking jokes in the live Q&A about fans that have counted the number of references to wind and rain in their music, nothing about the brutality of the landscape finds its way into True North as an album. Opening up with the track ‘I’m In’, sickly sweet lyrics like “Breathe in / Just breathe /There are times /Good times after these” are somehow layered over fictional scenes of a funeral as the only faint sense of grit in the film. From the look of the trailer, you’d be expecting some violence, drama-packed musical soundtracked by a new era of a-ha tunes. Full of people throwing punches, viking burials and bold landscapes - nothing screams soft guitar tunes, but that’s what you get. Instead introducing characters that gain no real story line of purpose, so much of True North feels like differing strands of ideas that were never resolved, as though the band never quite decided what they were making.
But beyond the disconnectedly cheerful tunes and unexplained actors, the strangest insertion into the film is the suggestion that True North is about the environment. Described as “a poem from the far north of Norway”, all the natural visuals lend themselves to a poignant piece. Scattering audio snippets from the band between tracks, the opening conversations suggest that the topic of climate change and the changing environment are a central theme. Walking amongst the coast mountains, singer Morten Harket seems to be working up to something insightful but falls short, only managing base-line statements about the ocean being a womb, and how we rely on nature to survive and we need to understand our place in the order of things. Repeatedly referring to their passion for the environment and philanthropic efforts in the sciences, there’s not much effort of that passion in True North beyond a few empty statements and some nice shots of whales. And then half an hour later, the topic is dropped and all that care is kind of undone when the actors burn down a house and set fire to a boat on the oceans they just said we need to protect…
It’s a shame that the comments made in the live Q&A didn’t make their way into the film. Offering far more insightful remarks about the footprint live music leaves and the need for older generations to work harder in the time they have left to support their children and grandchildren in the climate crisis, Magne Furuholmen seems to suggest like the origin of the project had a far sharper focus. But in the tension between Magne and Morten, I imagine the purpose of the piece got lost in a need to just get the work done in the “less painful way possible” as they put it.
As an album alone, True North has merit. Morten’s voice still sounds perfect, and while softening into a more easy-listening space, there are still slithers of that hooking 80s synth pop in there. Paired with a philharmonic orchestra, the sound is elevated into something cinematic enough to stand out on shuffle but to stand alongside clips of brutal mountains and be played into cinemas worldwide? True North is not quite cinematic enough.
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More about: A-Ha