Stop. Listen closely. Closer. Can you hear it? That catchy keyboard is once again stuck in your head and your toe starts tapping. As you turn it up, the iconic video – drawn as a comic book – pops in your head and you realize that a-ha’s (band name NEVER capitalized) debut album Hunting High and Low turns 30 this year.
Most music lovers who grew up in the ‘80s immediately recognize the unforgettable keyboards of a-ha’s first single Take On Me. Unfortunately, and mistakenly, this song, and band, has been labeled as a one-hit wonder. Well, it was a hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard singles charts for the week of October 19, 1985. Technically, it is a-ha’s only top 10 hit IN THE UNITED STATES. The band has been hugely successful in Europe for many years charting well over 25 hit singles in a variety of European countries. Despite this, Hunting High and Low is by far the band’s most successful release in the U.S., reaching #15 and selling nearly 1.1 million copies.
While VH-1 does rank Take on Me as the #3 one-hit wonder of the ‘80s, I think the album itself deserves more attention. Growing up in Germany, I was afforded a large dose of a-ha. My best friends and I played the album hundreds of times, singing each song and playing air keyboards with unbelievable enthusiasm and fervor. As VH-1’s ranking suggests, most are quite familiar with the hit single and video, but keep listening and you will find some catchy synth pop songs that will become earworms for days on end.
The second single from Hunting High and Low is The Sun Always Shines on T.V. This is the only track on the album that has any real guitar riff that is worth mentioning. While it is a pure rhythm guitar, it does an admirable job of carrying the song in a similar fashion that the keyboards do in most of a-ha’s other tunes. It also serves as great foreshadowing for a-ha’s next album Scoundrel Days which features more guitar driven songs like Manhattan Skyline and I’ve Been Losing You.
When listening to music I am never able to fully let go of the importance of lyrics. I would informally rank the lyrics on Hunting High and Low as decent – not great, but good enough. The lyrics blend well with the music and occasionally achieve the level of pretty good. My favorite song on this album is the title track. If you need a romantic song for that special occasion, this song would work perfectly.
Here I am and within the reach of my hand
She’s sound asleep
And she’s sweeter now than the wildest dream
Could have seen her
And I watch her slipping away
Another notable song, lyrically speaking, is Train of Thought. In this song, a-ha provides an excellent character sketch of a man who feels the tedium of existence and his life slipping away on mindless subway trips to and from a boring job.
He likes to have the morning paper crossword solved
Words go up, words go down, forward, backward, twisting round
He grabs a pile of letters from the small suitcase
Disappears into an office, it’s another working day
When (not if) you listen to this album, be sure you do not miss track #7 And You Tell Me. This song is short, clocking in at 1:52, but it packs a significant emotional punch. It is a ballad that captures the speaker’s willingness to rekindle a relationship. The lyrics are pure irony, ”And tomorrow is the day that I, for your sake, am coming back.” This is a classic case of someone trying to convince himself that the woman needs him and not truly realizing that he is the one who really needs her.
I was fortunate enough to see a-ha in the Fall of 1986. It was the tour in support of their second album Scoundrel Days and featured nearly every song from Hunting High and Low as well as most of their sophomore effort. Perhaps it was due to the technology of keyboards, but the energetic live performance sounded just like their records! As I enthusiastically memorized Hunting High and Low, I clearly loved a-ha, but after their second album and this concert, I was forced to rank them as one of my favorite bands. I have continued to follow them closely and, thanks to the power of downloading music from iTunes and ordering CDs online, I have been able to enjoy all of the music that follows Hunting High and Low.
a-ha’s Hunting High and Low deserves another listen and a genuine chance to break the one-hit wonder status. It is true that their keyboard synth pop sound is no longer as popular as it was in the mid ‘80s, but this album does hold it’s own. Based on the number of times it has been sampled (listen to Pitbull’s Feel This Moment for example), a-ha still has some appeal to a contemporary audience. This album marks the beginning of an international music career that most bands just dream of. a-ha has some excellent music that will come after Hunting High and Low, but this album, that now turns 30, is a must on any “need to revisit” list.