“It was about time that we reached out a little more,” says a-ha singer Morten Harket of the group’s new album Foot Of The Mountain. The album marks a return to the classic pop sound that made a-ha one of the biggest acts in the world. As keyboard player Magne Furuholmen explains, “It’s an album that incorporates the key elements that first defined the band: soaring vocals, synth hooks, yearning lyrics and melodic melancholia.” Or as guitarist and principal songwriter Paul Waaktaar-Savoy puts it more simply: “I think we got a great collection of songs this time around.”
Written and recorded in various major cities — from Oslo, where the band formed in 1982, to New York, where Paul now lives — Foot Of The Mountain is, in Morten’s words, “predominantly a synth-based album.” The ten new songs carry echoes of the band’s early signature hits: “Take On Me”, “The Sun Always Shines On TV” and “I’ve Been Losing You”.
Paul wrote the majority of the new songs: five co-written with Magne, four written alone. He also experimented with some new techniques. “Riding The Crest” — described by Paul as “an electro blues” — was inspired by Arcade Fire’s use of the 12-bar form on their 2007 album Neon Bible. “Real Meaning” was a happy accident: an idea that came spontaneously when Paul called home from Russia and was greeted by his answering machine. “As a joke I started singing away and this song fell out,” he laughs. “I meant every word, though.” And on “Start The Simulator”, Paul employed a novel lyrical style, drawing on the technical jargon of the Cold War era’s Space Race. “The basic idea,” he says, “was to make a song using only technical terms and phrases, and still make it very emotional and personal. There is such poetry in the old Apollo manuals: “switch to Omni Bravo” and “the bright ejector blanket”. It was quite a hard song to record as it changes both time signatures and keys as it goes along. What sounded so simple on the piano got very quickly complicated when it was translated to a full arrangement. I think we got there in the end though!”
There are also three songs that reflect Paul’s emotional connection to his natural and adopted homelands. “Shadowside”, he says, “feels quite Norwegian — in the melody, the chords and the mood”. “The Bandstand” reminds him of his first trip to New York City in the early ’80s, before a-ha were famous. “Songs are like a photo-album — they can really send you back. And this one reminds me of arriving at Port Authority with $35 in my pocket, sporting really high, yellow, almost see-through synthesizer-hair, wearing a tiger-shirt and a brown suit, looking like an alien!” And the album’s title track, “Foot Of The Mountain” — fashioned from two previously separate songs, one written by Paul, the other by Magne — examines one of the fundamental conflicts of modern life, the pull between nature and big-city civilization: for Paul, the buzz of New York City versus the beauty and isolation of Norway. “It’s the dilemma of loving a city life, yet secretly wondering if we’d be happier being surrounded by open fields and sweeping mountains.”