When Norwegian legendary pop trio a-ha disbanded in 2010, it was unclear what prime songwriter Pål Waaktaar-Savoy – who never hid the fact that he did not want the band to stop – would come up with next. Would he rekindle his other band Savoy, which he started with his wife Lauren Waaktaar-Savoy and drummer Frode Unneland in 1995 (after having reached Mark Hollis, hoping to start a band with him as a singer, as it is stated in Tårer fra en stein, the recently published book by Ørjan Nilsson based on interviews with Waaktaar-Savoy), when a-ha was on hiatus, and continued up until 2007 in parallel with a reformed a-ha, releasing five albums and a career-retrospective best-of? Or would he start a brand new project from scratch, solo or with other musicians, as he seemed to be willing to at the time?
There was a couple of tracks released, most notably "Weathervane” with Jimmy Gnecco as a singer in 2011 and "Manmade Lake” under the moniker Waaktaar in 2014, which both hinted at new albums, but nothing really happened before a-ha officially reunited in 2015, on the impulse of a long secret demoing process with Morten Harket which would lead to their first album in six years, Cast in Steel (reviewed here).
Although Pål Waaktaar-Savoy is responsible for half of the tracks on Cast in Steel, the history turned sour once again, with ego conflicts leading to leave aside half of the tracks he co-produced with Alan Tarney for the album, a real shame knowing that the few ones featured (especially "Door Ajar” and "Shadow Endeavors”) are among the boldest tracks a-ha ever released, embracing a full electronic direction and giving the impression of a new golden age for Waaktaar-Savoy, not only as a very crafted songwriter, but as a great music-maker rendering the distinction between songwriting and production ineffective, able not only to write good tunes, but also to make sound breathe, so to speak.
No wonder there was a feeling that more would necessarily come out of this rush of creativity once he would get his freedom back to release whatever he wanted, and that the following records would help map out those five years since he had disappeared from the public eye, hopefully offering more from this new golden age that the democratic way of sequencing Cast in Steel had prevented us from getting.
Last year’s World of trouble, released by Drabant under the name Waaktaar and Zoë [i.e. Gnecco, daughter of the aforementioned Jimmy] was something of a let-down in that respect. While none of the songs was particularly bad, they clearly lacked a distinctive direction and, with a few exceptions (previously teased during the Cast in Steel sessions "Open Face”, long-lost gem from the early a-ha days "They to Me and I to Them", and especially the closing-track "The Sequoia has Fallen”, a nice ballad full of space, dissonant gimmicks and glitchy synths reminiscent of Fennesz), they sounded more like sketches compared to the extremely ambitious pop-songs he has delivered throughout his career, lacking musicianship to the point that the record as a whole was the closest Waaktaar-Savoy had ever sounded to your average MOR songwriter.
This was partly due to the inconsistency of the album for sure. There has always been several threads running simultaneously in his work – which was quite hidden two decades ago because of the more focused approach to making an album. While this is definitely one of his strengths – each song having a quite strong identity – the albums he has been involved with increasingly seem to go in too many directions for the songs to really make sense next to each other. It gets more and more difficult to apprehend them as true albums rather than merely circumstantial collections of (more often than not high-quality) songs. You could play the game of making the perfect 10 tracks Waaktaar-Savoy album with songs out of 10 different albums spanning his whole career – which should not sound as negative as it seems (this would be equally true of such comparable long-career songwriters as Thom Yorke or Damon Albarn). Working into different contexts certainly helped broaden his work, and while it might look like we can only dream of a true cohesive album like he delivered a couple of times (a-ha's East of the Sun West of the Moon and Savoy's Mary is Coming being cases in point), there is always standout tracks on each new record which somehow achieve their potential and testify (however disparate from the rest they might be) for his ability to think about sound in a constructive way.
Savoy's long-awaited sixth album, See the beauty in your drab hometown, released January 12th but mostly recorded in 2015, right after the release of Cast in Steel, surely sounded promising from the outset in that respect. More musicians involved in the recording; a brilliant electronic first single that hinted at a new direction for the band, described by themselves as "more groove-based”, "looser” and "containing more programming than the previous albums have", connecting it somehow with the tracks Pål Waaktaar-Savoy was responsible for on Cast in Steel; a press release which states that it "has been one of the least time demanding albums to make as the songs found their shape much faster than before”, suggesting that the 10 tracks album might be more cohesive than World of Trouble which had been recorded over a long period of time; a tracklist which features new recordings of the two aforementionned singles released in the period 2011-2014, giving the impression that See the beauty in your drab hometown will document that time in Waaktaar-Savoy's life in a more ambitious way than World of Trouble did.
All of this is partly true. The simple facts that the album features more programming than before certainly does not give it a clearer identity, and the 10 tracks go in almost as many directions, illustrating different sides of Waaktaar-Savoy’s work. But the average level is definitely way higher than on World of Trouble, and the context of releasing it through Savoy gives a particular perspective on which history it can be read into - and what fresh light it might spread on the whole body of work of the band.
"Night Watch” is the first single, which came out in November, and is a true masterpiece. Its soundscape of layered synth and guitar melodies would have been perfectly at home on Cast in Steel next to "Door Ajar” and "Shadow Endeavors”, the "dark dance” (as they call it) undertones never overwhelming the great melodicism, with great harmony parts and a vocal performance that manage to make you forget Morten Harket' voice. Although it could have been even better, it is the song I have hoped for years that a-ha would release, sounding like the perfect encounter between Waaktaar-Savoy’s effortless songwriting talents and his ear for sonically explorative narrations, especially in the breakdown part where a meowing modular synth takes the center of the stage. With its mantra-like one-sentence chorus "Just let it go", it offers the perfect opening for an album that will have a hard time trying to emulate such brilliance.
Less nuanced but still extremely effective, second track "A Month of Sundays” builds on some of the same ingredients, in a more gothic direction. Certainly tighter than "Night Watch”, with its tense, cathartic lyrics ("Here comes the good cry / Long overdue / Will I feel better / Will I feel new"), it makes a good, percussive use of its components and could easily have featured on Cast in Steel too, next to Magne Furuholmen's cut "Giving up the ghost", with which it shares a same kind of structure and use of classy vocal harmonies.
Those two first tracks, which both feature a-ha drummer Karl Oluf Wennerberg, are by far the ones relying the most on programming, the rest of the disc offering other kinds of rewards. Pål Waaktaar-Savoy has always had a real talent as a songwriter for opening space for unexpected twists and corners. "Falls Park” illustrates this, all the more since it is a song originally written in the late 70s which, for some reason, was never properly finished and did not find its way into an album until now. Another standout track, it immerses its meandering melody (which itself raises it to the pantheon of the best Waaktaar-Savoy songs, next to things like "Soft rains of April" and "There is never a forever thing” - a song, for once, that would fit Mark Hollis’ voice like nothing else) in a great atmospheric production, not unlike what was done decades ago with a-ha’s "October” (later to be covered by Savoy in the mid-90s), with a buzzing synth underlying a nice interplay between the instruments, and yet another great building of vocal harmonies.
"Manmade Lake” continues to bridge the gap between a-ha and Savoy, as it was first recorded (but sadly not released) as part of the sessions for a-ha’s Foot of the Mountain in 2009. It then came as a surprise that the song appeared, in its 2014 solo version, to be a distortion-heavy guitar-led track with spacey lyrics, more in tune with a former Savoy track like "Rain” than with a-ha’s back-to-the-roots synthpop revival album. The new version is somehow more epic and intense, more shining in a way, with its tremendous guitar sound, airy synths and imaginative bass line building towards an otherworldly ending, but maybe filled with too many ideas along the way - which makes you crave even more to hear a-ha's supposedly more minimalist version from 2009. Nevertheless, a fantastic song, the closest on this record to Waaktaar-Savoy's trademark progressive pop music.
The following five tracks offer a new change in direction, in that they are notable for sounding unmistakably like Savoy (like what writing inside Savoy brought to Pål Waaktaar-Savoy’s authorship as much as like what input Lauren Waaktaar-Savoy had on the identity of the band). Concretely it means a certain embrace of 60s-tinged songwriting, less heavily melancholic than the standard a-ha song, funnier in terms of mood and simpler in terms of structure. "Bump” is a nice little number, written by Lauren Waaktar-Savoy for a short movie she directed a few years ago (available to watch in full here). It is loaded with harmony vocals a la Beach Boys, sunny chord changes and subtle synth flourishes that add some depth to the picture, in a more vintage than futurist way. It is certainly the least ambitious track thus far, but deserves its inclusion, with its playful instrumental parts and intertwined melody lines. Second single "January Thaw" is much less satisfying in that respect. Actually a collage of two distinct parts (one written by Pål, the other by Lauren) to form a brand new song, like there have been many though both a-ha's and Savoy's history, it is a bit too safe and predictable to sound really convincing, making the collage sound artificial, which is a shame as it displays some interesting elements in the instrumental and vocal production along the way.
"Shy Teens Suffering Silently” is another short number, which reminds of the most upbeat songs from Mary is Coming, although with a marked used of distorted synths, that make it sound really fresh in the context of this album. With its anthemic chorus, "We’re the same way”, sounds like it could have been on the band’s fourth album, Reasons to Stay Indoors from 2001 (its title actually appears on a photograph, featured at the end of Tårer fra en stein, of a notebook used during the recording sessions for their eponymous album from 2004), while the airy production hints at fellow contemporary 60s-influenced synthpop artists like Tame Impala and Sondre Lerche (whose influence could already be felt to some degree on some of the best tracks from World of Trouble). Less rewarding than "Manmade Lake" in terms of scope, it still makes sense as part of the same album and offers the sense of an invigorated Savoy. Penultimate track "Sunlit Byways” takes back the vocal influence from The Band that was all over their 2004 album, while the lead vocals (recorded through what sounds like an old telephone) sound closer than ever to Damon Albarn (even lyrically). It unfolds with nice variations, allowing it to never sound repetitive, and offers a great moment of subtle melancholy before the splendid finale that is "(My) Weathervane”.
As the years have passed since it was first released as the end-credit song for Morten Tyldum's Hodejegerne, I have come to consider it as one of the best songs Pål Waaktaar-Savoy has ever written, albeit one quite mechanical production did not do it completely justice. This brand new recording brings it closer to previous closing-tracks like Savoy's "Isotope" and a-ha's "Start the Simulator", managing to sound somewhat weirder than the rest of the album thanks to an adventurous feeling retaining something of its rough appeal. By far the most intricate thing on the record, it offers a great mix of electronic and acoustic instruments, featuring many colliding textures and melodies along the lines of its three distinct sections (echoed in the very personal lyrics), each marked by a mindblowing key change. That's the perfect way to end an album, and another idiosyncratic achievement, next to "Night Watch", "Falls Park" and "Manmade Lake" - all songs that sound like no one else could have done them while simultaneously bringing something new to their author's repertoire.