All-Time Albums: #49

aha_Scoundrel

a-ha Scoundrel Days
(1986)

1 Scoundrel Days 4:02
2 The Swing Of Things 4:14
I’ve Been Losing You 4:24 (UK single, #8)
4 October 3:55
5 Manhattan Skyline 4:52 (UK single, #13)
6 Cry Wolf 4:06 (UK single, #4)
7 We’re Looking For The Whales 3:43
The Weight Of The Wind 3:59
9 Maybe Maybe 2:36
10 Soft Rains Of April 3:12

The autumn of 1986 was a brutal time for many ’80s stalwarts, as everyone from The Human League, O.M.D., Howard Jones, Ultravox and Nik Kershaw to Kraftwerk and Grace Jones found that, in terms of the chart world, time had begun to leave them behind. Even the once-mighty Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet discovered that their fanbases could no longer be taken for granted.

By contrast, a-ha were part of the new brigade along with Pet Shop Boys and Five Star, racking up a series of Top 10 hit singles and enduring albums. Looking at Scoundrel Days now, it’s quite remarkable how such an uncommercial record (within the context of 1986 chart pop) fared so well.

Cry Wolf clearly helped, giving the campaign a crucial momentum in the build-up to Christmas and then into 1987, as there really weren’t many other options. Luckily, the a-ha brand was still enough of a pull to send the likes of Manhattan Skyline (a compelling, schizophrenic mess) to #13 on the Top 40 before their James Bond theme for The Living Daylights spared Warner Bros. the nightmare of wondering what to issue next.

I can’t be objective where early a-ha are concerned; their first three albums were such an intrinsic part of my youth and it’s impossible to separate that from the actual music’s qualities three decades later. I still think they all stand up brilliantly (the deluxe reissues have helped in that respect), but perhaps Scoundrel Days is now the weakest of the trio. Which is rather ironic, given I was far more into this album than the others at the time of its release (Hunting High & Low, as a whole, never got hammered the way Scoundrel Days did!).

You could say it’s their most Nordic record, with the myriad of references to the elements and landscapes (as well as the glorious embossed sleeve for the original LP, which finally adorned the 2012 CD reissue). It probably turns out they wrote and recorded it at the same studio in South London as the debut LP, but let’s not spoil the fantasy.

There are some very dark overtones to the lyrics as well (which appealed to a slightly tortured 15-year old wannabe songwriter), taking their cue from the likes of The Sun Always Shines On TV and Here I Stand And Face The Rain rather than Take On Me or Train of Thought.

Kicking the album off with the title song was a very brave move, as was picking I’ve Been Losing You as the lead single (fantastic though it is). All five tracks on Side One are among my all-time favourites by the band. The second half is given over to more lightweight fare such as Cry Wolf, Looking For The Whales and the “jokey” Maybe Maybe (no a-ha album is complete without one of those), but concludes with the stunning Soft Rains Of April, which Peter Gabriel would be proud of.

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