For most of my life I was blind to the appeal of a-ha’s “Take On Me.” While my distaste was partially due to snobbery and contrarianism, I never understood the song. The lyrics and production are always overshadowed by my friends shrieking “in a day or twooooo” in piercing falsetto. I grew an aversion to the song, but stepping back and slowing things down allowed me to find beauty in the chaos.
MTV unplugged And acoustic covers
Once while procrastinating, I found myself in a deep dive of the MTV Unplugged television series. The show features recording artists who play stripped down, usually acoustic versions of their songs. If you are familiar with it, you’ve probably seen or heard Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World.” One of twelve Unplugged records to go platinum, the cover is so famous that a Google search of the song yields Nirvana’s 1993 version before David Bowie’s 1970 original. The episode was recorded just months before Kurt Cobain’s death, solidifying its place in music history. Beyond Nirvana’s episode exist twenty four seasons of acoustic sets.
I know what you’re thinking: who asked for twenty four seasons of acoustic covers? The skepticism surrounding acoustic covers is often justified. There are some bad ones out there. A good acoustic cover is rare, but transformative. A song should not be played on acoustic instruments simply because they are what’s available. An acoustic version has the potential to change the songs story, mood and perspective. My mind goes to Johnny Cash’s take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” or Foo Fighters’ acoustic rendition of their own “Everlong.” These covers are in no way rehashes of the originals. They are wholly unique, bringing about new meaning through their acoustic qualities. This is especially true of a-ha’s acoustic “Take On Me” cover.
“Take on me” unplugged
I click on a-ha’s 2017 MTV Unplugged session hoping for a laugh. What on earth will a cover of “Take On Me” sound like unplugged? All I can picture is something ridiculous. What I get is something wildly different, completely unlike the original. There are no synths, no drums and it is gently floats at about half the original tempo. The simple composition of piano, acoustic guitar and the airy backing of the organ leave room to listen to the surprisingly emotional lyrics. In the original, the lyrics can get lost in the energy. No matter how emotionally charged they may be, the upbeat tempo and synth make what could have gravitas feel lighthearted.
What once felt carefree now comes across as mournful. Lead singer Morten Harket brings a yearning quality to the acoustic rendition. Where he once nonchalantly asked the person of his attraction to simply, “take me on,” he now begs for one last chance with them before he’s “gone,” as though in a matter of life and death. The stakes are higher as each lyric has an underlying feeling of desperation.
“Today’s another day to find you,” starts the song off in a relatively optimistic tone. However, we learn the singer’s attempts are in vain as he sings, “but I’ll be stumbling away, slowly learning that life is okay.” Morten Harket voices the mixed signals he receives from the person he loves, asking if their words are “just to play my worries away.” Despite his confusion, he refuses to accept defeat, stating in the final verse, “I’ll be coming for you anyway.” Harket’s hope, slowly draining verse by verse, eventually turns to melancholy resolve, offering a full emotional arc not as easily discernible in the original version.
While I prefer the style and Harket’s soulfully wails in the acoustic version, the original has its merits. Revisiting it with the understanding gained from the acoustic brings a heartfelt undertone to an otherwise slaphappy tune. The original boasts depth in emotional meaning while maintaining its recreative quality, all the while backed by one of the most iconic music videos of all time. The darkness of the acoustic version brings duality to the original, which is exactly the sort of effectiveness a cover ought to have.