Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark
History of Modern
OMD always did know the power of cheap music.
That may sound like bit of a backhanded slap, but it is (paraphrased) how lead singer/co-main songwriter Andy McCluskey introduced “If You Leave” at least once in concert. This is a band that once called an album Junk Culture
But I want to make clear — I don’t mean to dismiss their talent for a classic pop melody like “Leave,” by any means. They did it better than just about any other great electronic pop artist, they did it earlier than most (including Pet Shop Boys, their only rivals), and they influenced many from Howard Jones to Venus Hum and beyond.
Still Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, to use their full name, broke up before the ’80s did. Andy did a few essentially solo records under the name, but it was nowhere near half as good, with one or two exceptions (“The Black Sea,” “Very Close To Far Away”).
His colleague and creative partner Paul Humphreys likewise toured as a solo act. Put on a fabulous show as I remember, especially for those who’d never seen what I call “OMD proper” (meaning the band as it existed in the ’80s)… but I had.
So here we are, two decades-plus later, and there’s a new OMD album.
Like, meaning a proper new OMD album, with Andy, and Paul, and Martin Cooper, who plays lots of things (his saxophone is missed herein) and Malcolm Holmes the drummer.
I grew lightheaded when I heard.
One of the things I am very glad of in my life is that I did see the last US tour of “OMD Proper.” The only thing which takes some of the glad off is that it wasn’t a full show. It was their opening slot for Depeche Mode on the Music for the Masses tour. But it was still the last time that OMD — again, “proper” — performed here, and I’m glad that I saw it. OMD was an exciting band in its day.
So… how is it?
Well, let’s start with the bad news… just because I want to get down on record that both here and in the UK, the band is not starting on the right foot (there’s a joke to be had somewhere in there about Andy’s dancing…).
The first single (at least in the UK) “If You Want It” is… less than singular. The most interesting thing about it, in fact, is wondering whether or not it’s really about a man falling in love… or McCluskey contemplating overcoming the bad blood with Humphreys.
Then there’s “Save Me,” which is basically a mash-up of Aretha Franklin’s 1967 song of the same name with elements of OMD’s 1980 hit “Messages.”
It’s a novelty about on par with “Rush”-era Big Audio Dynamite. Which ain’t nothin’, but it also ain’t much. I’m at a loss to explain why that should be scheduled as the first US single, but then… am I a musician or a PR person?
See, if I was, I would’ve suggested “The Future…” which is not only a better song than either “Save Me” or “If You Want It,” but is also just dying to be remixed for radio (InnerPartySystem? Front and center… ). Yes, there’s good news tonight: There are flashes of the old greatness here.
“New Babies; New Toys,” which opens the album, starts out sounding very much like OMD awakening from a long slumber before adding a more raw element. At first I wasn’t sure how the two would fit together, but the lyric hook convinced me:
“New babies and new toys / It’s better with the girls, but it’s bigger with the boys.”
According to a Spin.com interview with McCluskey, the song is meant to express his… well, let’s just say “displeasure” with much of the crap pop (entirely different from cheap music, pls. note) of the past decade.
Y’know, when the music was defined by American Idol and its sources and spin-offs. I shared his pain, but as one of the producers and writers behind Atomic Kitten, McCluskey’s hands are not exactly spotless.
I’ve always enjoyed those double-meanings that fans can hear in the songs by the bands they love (and if my “fannish” nature hasn’t yet become apparent, I do indeed love OMD). See my speculation on “If You Want It,” above for an example. For another, I like to imagine the waltz (yes) “Bondage Of Fate” as addressing we for whom OMD is “tied to [our] memory, [our] love and [our] hate.”
But the most notable is the first of the two title songs, a tight, keyboard-led track that should’ve been the first song on the album with a vaguely Buddhist (at least) lyric, on the uselessness of attachment.
“New Holy Ground,” which should’ve been the last song on the album, is a solid, quiet number with a message of hope. Almost to balance that, the most miserable song here (I’m speaking of lyric, not quality) is “Sometimes.” There is a touch of angst to be had, thinking that the band which once sang of openness and “Talking Loud and Clear,” is now writing about emotional abandonment.
But then, when they weren’t writing “cheap music” singles, OMD used to make songs of nearly Morriseyesque depression (and good old-fashioned Catholic repression), too… that’s the Dark part of their name.