ILM's 2005 collaborative mix project hoonja-doonja!

February 18, 2005

a-ha, "The Swing of Things"

(Warning -- this is, um, a bit long. The post, not the song.)

Of the many varieties of should-have-been hits, I ask you to consider the singles that were never chosen by the bands with success, the potential oldies standards that aren't. So, turning to a favored touchstone of mine, early a-ha. In America cursed with a one-hit-wonder status or near enough to it, but overseas things were far different, slew of hit singles all around, continuing greatness (well, at least I think so). But on their second album Scoundrel Days, I am frustrated by the fact that the two best songs were never singles. What the heck were they thinking?

Oh, I suppose, I shouldn't complain. I doubt the band was complaining, why would they? But "Scoundrel Days" the song is one hell of an opener, with that nervous twitchy introduction and a chorus that feelings like soaring over the fjords. Then there's "The Swing of Things."

Beautiful, wonderful "Swing of Things." See, it's a song that if you're not careful you can describe as yupfunk thanks to the way that the verses move, a bit of restrained swagger, careful attitude. I can imagine some dork somewhere thinking he was suave trying to pull off a ‘hey, get me babe!' approach on his local dance floor in 1987 while pounding the wine coolers (had this been a hit and it had been a couple of years later, this dork would have been me, so I mock out of love...OR DO I?)

Thing is, though, that the tres lame guitars that usually distinguished such efforts were gone (Cutting Crew was probably dorking around with them), because a-ha were geniuses and avoided such idiocy. So instead there's a quiet bit of mournful guitar near the start that could almost eventually be a quiet bit of mournful Martin Gore guitar and for all I know Martin Gore was listening because even he hadn't found out yet quite how to integrate it fully into his approach. (His approach was already great mind you. So was Alan Wilder's. But I digress.)

The FURTHER thing though is that the opening is this sparkling chime of a synth that's still beautiful today -- are IDM people using this? Why not dammit? GARG -- and it's a slightly descending melody so it's glam (possibly) except then it keeps going back up but it's still sad while there's all sorts of buried drum bits and bass, and then a quick shimmer into that guitar/keyboard bit alluded to earlier. Blue, deep deep blue. I love melancholy when it works (oh but GOD do I hate it when it sucks, the pain the pain...).

Meanwhile, when Morten Harket, who pulled a reverse Al Green by studying for the priesthood before becoming a famous singer (and he didn't even have to get burned or anything), sings on those verses and elsewhere, that supposed swagger isn't. Instead it's a discussion of how the construction of interdependent world politics and its reportage in the mainstream media results in an overwhelming conclusion that all matters everywhere must be attended to by all thinking persons on a regular basis, as well as a discussion of how engaging with the world will yet provide better results than completely withdrawing from it, but how in the face of those observations, especially and even when conveyed by someone who could well be an activist of some sort, the feelings of romantic love for that other can in fact override these considerations, leading to an admission that the personal can transcend the political, which given the nature of the potentially overwhelming pressures of modern life is perfectly understandable. So in otherwards this was socially conscious music that made a concise plea for pointing out the values of supposedly bourgeois romance. It was the most intelligent and politically aware music of the eighties! It was everything those smugfucks at Rolling Stone said was missing the entire decade, only they wouldn't pay attention because neither Jerry Garcia nor Jeff Lynne worked on it! BASTARDS! I WANT DAVID FRICKE'S WARDROBE BURNED TO THE GROUND!

Hm, anyway. So when The Chorus kicks in each time, it's Morten (via bandmate Pal Waaktarr, who wrote music and lyrics) channeling The Lexicon of Love the first time around ("But how can I speak of the world rushing by/With a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye?" -- you're saying Martin Fry couldn't sing that? I THINK NOT), then Avalon the second time around ("But how can I sleep with your voice in my head/And an ocean between us and room in my bed?" -- I've been through long distance relationships and lemme tell ya this is more accurate than you'll ever know unless you've been there). And both times the music strips down to this quick pulse beat and gentle cymbal clash and soothing keyboards, then the drums break down in a distinctly non-4/4 beat (6/8 I think? Someone correct me here) for the second part. Let us take the time to herald the inspired work of session drummer Michael Sturgis on this song, on the album, because he was the Hal Blaine of this mother and he's a GENIUS. More later but just listen to the way he skitters on the high hat before bringing it back in full on those choruses. And I haven't even mentioned the soaring double-tracked way Morten completes those choruses with a sudden almost resigned sing/stating of the title, almost an acceptance of fate.

A quick sprightly break and then everything almost turns ghostly, Morten sings "When she glows..." and the keyboards damn well GLOW, like a haunting dream somewhere, like this is the ghost in one's house, the angel floating around the room. You know, how does/did he nail that sense of poised rhyme scheme, time and tempo, breathless but never out of breath? What a dream of a singer Morten was here, this is something that might or might not survive American Idol rundowns but damn if this isn't all the training and expression one could want coming to bear, and when he takes the arrangement back into full propulsion with one of his trademark high-pitched rises on "I KNOW that I'll need THIS for the REST of my LIFE" it's pretty great, and then That Guitar sneaks back in from the start of the song, Sturgis keeps the tension and pace moving and changing just a bit, Morten repeats the line quietly, resignedly, then he lets fly -- it's not the same type of unearthly wail in "Take On Me," it's lost in the mix, a cry of a lost soul.

Then the final thirty seconds are heralded by this monstrous drum fill from Sturgis -- no, fine, it's not John Bonham level but it's all about context, LISTEN to it slam in, holy fuck -- and Morten drops the emotional bomb: "What have I done/What lies I have told/I played games with the ones that rescued my soul." Argh ARGH ARGH I might as well be wearing those words tattooed on my brain with a pickaxe (and even if I hadn't been there my god how great is it that Morten delivers it post-wail with an almost aggressive multitracked flatness, not pleading, not sorrowful, but blunt, Bowie as the alien looking coldly on himself or something). And it concludes with a massive crash and bash, the title phrase delivered quietly one more time, a dying keyboard figure and one last quick fill from Sturgis.

And it wasn't a single! This apocalyptic catchy mental explosive of a dancefloor filler meets elegant ballad meets state of the art production c. 1986 WASN'T A SINGLE! OMGWTF and I can't even LOL because it's nothing to laugh at!

But hey, at least that means I can include it here.

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