- a-ha Stay On These Roads (Warner Bros)
- Week Ending 2nd April 1988
- 2 Weeks At #1
The 6th Number One for a-ha on my charts was their first release in almost 12 months, since the theme from The Living Daylights the previous summer. Its success meant the band had also achieved a chart-topper in four consecutive calendar years; Take On Me and The Sun Always Shines On TV in 1985, Hunting High & Low in 1986, and Manhattan Skyline as well as The Living Daylights in 1987.
So, would the 1988 model bring any major developments to the table? Would their third album see the same kind of creative risks as Scoundrel Days, which wasted no time in moving their style on from the Hunting High & Low formula and branching out into darker waters. Well, at the time it didn’t seem like it; from the return of their classic a-ha logo, to the artful, blurry photo on the single’s cover…it was all very much as per the debut. And the record itself?
Umm, probably a similar tale; Stay On These Roads chugs along on a lovely Alan Tarney synth line, evoking the more electronic textures of Hunting High & Low, while lyrically and vocally recalling the likes of Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale and the title track itself.
Morten swoops and soars and carries the brittle melody with typical aplomb. The feel is very wintery and melancholic. So far, so a-ha. And that’s the main takeaway from this single, a familiarity that’s comforting and felt even moreso during the most turbulent period of my life and a year when a lot of my favourite artists and bands were on hiatus, going through significant line-up changes, or not sounding like their old selves anymore.
The album of the same name which appeared about a month later, in May 1988, met with mixed reviews and moderate sales. Among its 10 tracks was a reworked B-side from 1987, a re-recorded version of The Living Daylights, and a couple of slightly odd songs that barely lasted 2 minutes each. With hindsight, it was a pivotal record in their career. They were leaving the chart synth-pop behind, searching for greater depth in their writing and a more orthodox, rock-oriented sound.
This process was rather rudely interrupted – and obscured – by the failure of Stay On These Roads‘ second single, The Blood That Moves The Body, which stiffed at #25. Warners’ response was to issue the album’s two lightweight ditties, Touchy! (an old song, dating from their pre-fame days) and You Are The One (a sort of Take On Me II), in an attempt to rescue the campaign from complete oblivion. It worked, with both singles coming close to the UK Top 10, but created the impression that a-ha had not really evolved since 1985 and were treading water, still courting the Smash Hits crowd.
Touchy! is quite good fun in its daft and dreamy way, and I was fine with it helping to prevent one of my favourite bands going down the dumper prematurely. I was less enamoured with You Are The One perpetuating the throwaway pop angle, when the album was home to the ethereal and sophisticated likes of Out Of Blue Comes Green and There’s Never A Forever Thing. Still, it managed to make #8 on my charts, being a-ha and everything, but that finally ended their unbroken run of Top 5 hits on my Top 40.
The short-term gains of pushing the likes of You Are The One arguably came back to bite when a-ha returned in late 1990, long of hair and (even more) serious of tone. And without any synths or drum machines! The organic textures of East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon were a logical progression from where the ambitious Stay On These Roads tracks had attempted to venture within the pop framework of 1988, yet the transition might have been more seamless, commercially, if the public’s last memory of a-ha hadn’t been a frothy slice of dinky europop.