A-ha – MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice (2017)

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What’s old is new again, as A-ha – the Norwegian band who rose to fame in the ’80s with “Take on Me” – returns with MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice after separating for a two-year hiatus.

An outrageously original video for that No. 1 hit initially bolstered their career. A-ha garnered numerous nominations and awards, including best new artist at the Grammys, favorite pop/rock video at the 1986 American Music Award and a half dozen nods at the MTV Music Awards in 1986.

They became closely associated with a new wave of synth-pop and electronic music back then, though A-ha actually began as an acoustic trio. That’s how most of the songs on their albums were composed during a successful 35-year career, even if the electronic technology of the ’80s tended to characterize much of A-ha’s image and success. Summer Solstice, recorded during a show on the Norwegian island of Giske, returns the band to that format.

This 21-track acoustic album, a first for A-ha, features a carefully crafted array of trademark hits like “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” tracks that are rarely played in concert and a pair of previously unreleased, brand-new songs (“This is Our Home” and “A Break in the Clouds”) which have never been performed live. A-ha also invited some guests to appear with them at the two-night stand, including Allison Moyet, Ian McCulloch, and Lissie.

Along the way, MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice taps into their progressive-rock past, stripping A-ha’s songs down to their core. Some of them, in fact, are initially hard to identify. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, but the band’s experience, artistry and high level of musicianship are evident when listening to this collection.

High points include “Take on Me,” of course, as well as “Summer Moved On” (featuring Moyet), “I’ve Been Losing You” (with Lissie) and the band’s two new releases. In each case, the reworking of the songs is done in a fantastically adventurous, beautiful way.

A-ha’s set-opening “This is Our Home,” a gorgeous piano-driven piece, stands out the most. Relying on a simple-chord progression and singer Morten Harket’s voice, this song speaks for itself. The featured piano only adds to its emotion and delicacy.

“A Break in the Clouds,” the other new addition to the band’s repertoire, is a soft-spoken, somber ballad where the piano is accompanied by acoustic guitar. They work together beautifully with Morten’s tone. All in all, it’s a flawless composition; the vulnerability and truth in its performance make this one of the best tracks on Summer Solstice. Meanwhile, collaborations with Lissie and with Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen fame (“Scoundrel Days” and “The Killing Moon”) prove A-ha can hold their own with some of Europe’s biggest stars.

The album closes with “Take on Me,” the chart-topping hit that made A-ha famous in the U.S. It’s completely transformed, however, from an up-tempo synth-pop song into a somber, melancholy ballad – showing that when you rearrange songs for an acoustic rendition, it’s like creating something completely new. As with a blank canvas, you can take it anywhere. “Take on Me” ends up with this whole new life of its own, a rebirth that renders the track almost unrecognizable on a first listen.

It’s the most obvious example here of A-ha’s ability to change the arrangements of their songs without losing their voice and the signature sound that so many fans adore – but MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice is actually jam-packed with them. That makes it a must-have album for both their core group of followers and ’80s music aficionados alike.

Kristina Mondo

Kristina Mondo

Kristina Mondo is New Jersey native, freelance writer, blogger and music enthusiast and a New Jersey Press Association Award winner. See more of her work at Off the Record: https://tunestoursandmore.wordpress.com/. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kristina Mondo
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