Since its arrival a little over two weeks ago in the limited edition box format*, almost all of my listening time has been taken up with OMD’s “History of Modern.” I got pulled into its clutches rather quickly and I’ve been compelled to listen to it almost exclusively during this time. I’ve posted a lengthy, first cut review and the more I listen to it, the more I’m discerning how its strengths and weaknesses are defined.
When a cherished band make a return after a long period of inactivity, the result can lead to almost anything. This happened, in a more modest way, when OMD fissured in 1988. Paul Humphreys, Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes parted ways with Andy McCluskey after their greatest hits album was released. The new single from that record was “Dreaming;” added to the compilation as a draw.
That single is as good as any to discuss the pros and cons of OMD’s artistic development as it clearly shows the way that artistic tropes and artistic point-of-view conspire to inform musician’s work. OMD have a wide variety of artistic tropes from which they pull from to create their art. Here’s a list of some major ones off the top of my head:
- Kraftwerk-influenced synthesizer pop
- hymn derived melodies
- a sense of melancholy
- when upbeat melodies are present they are contrasted with downbeat lyrics
- Krautrock influence [technically very different from the first bullet listed]
- lack of guitar
- use of mellotron sounds
- choral samples
- waltz beats
In other words, these are representative sonic hallmarks of what I consider to be an OMD recording. I’m an old fan as I heard them from their first single. These are the trappings of their music but any group could use them and create dramatically different art. That’s because what make the recording distinctively something that we can point to and say “that’s an OMD record” is the artistic point-of-view they bring to the song. That is to say, what are they discussing here? OMD have one of the more distinctive artistic POVs I’ve ever heard. Traits I can name quickly are:
- a sense of failure/ambivalence – never triumph
- observational songs about things
- songs informed by science
- avoidance of love songs
- Catholic influence
“Dreaming” is a decent song. Not their best by a long shot, but certainly not their worst. Its biggest strength is its heart tugging melody, which never is wholly upbeat or triumphant. That’s appropriate since the lyrical content is concerned with a failed attempt at a love affair. The haunting melancholy of it marks it more strongly as OMD than the lyrics, which are somewhat pedestrian.
When OMD returned to the scene in 1991 under the stewardship of just Andy McCluskey, at first I was so happy to hear new OMD after a three year layoff that I deemed “Sugar Tax” better than “Pacific Age,” the album that preceded it in 1986. A few years later, critical listening revealed that I was wrong. My enthusiasm got the better of me. When they resurfaced again after a fourteen year break, I have had over a decade to consider what it was that I responded so strongly to in this band.
With those examples given, the tropes/POV dialectic, when applied to the songs on the new album reveals reasons why I am responding so strongly to these songs. The first track, “New Babies. New Toys” employs very upbeat melody [itself Kraftwerk influenced] coupled with extremely caustic lyrics bemoaning the state of TV-show driven pop music. The ragged, distorted bass guitar is new to OMD, but there’s no mistaking that its the work of this band and not, say, New Order – another band with synthesizer driven pop melodies and ragged bass guitar. New Order’s lyrics are nothing if not impenetrable. This song is hiding nothing behind metaphor. It is pop music specifically about pop music.
Alternatively, the next track is one I dislike. “If You Want It” features a stereotypical lighter-waving “big” ballad melody. To make matters worse, the lyrics are nothing but a tired parade of pop song love clichés. The net result is a song that caters to none of OMD’s strengths and distinctions. Anyone could sing this song and the same thing would result; fatuous mush. It really sounds like this was a track that Andy wrote for one of his prefab girl groups he created in the 90s. What were they thinking to pick this for the leadoff single?
The next track features very strong tropes and POV. It takes what I consider the essence of OMD and distills it most strongly to create a song that is so distinctive, that it would be inconceivable that any other group could have recorded it. “History of Modern [part 1]” features:
- Kraftwerk-influenced synthesizer pop [the song’s coda specifically recalls Kraftwerk and the repetitive melody refers more obliquely to them]
- upbeat melodies contrasted with downbeat lyrics [the lyrics in other hands would invite the utmost in despair – everything that exists will not survive the next big bang]
- lack of guitar
- a sense of ambivalence [the song is cooly dispassionate about a topic of ultimate futility]
- observational songs about things [the song details a wide variety of things that will no longer exist following the next big bang]
- songs informed by science [the song is concerned with the next big bang and inspired by the Large Hadron Collider]
The more tropes and POV strains that can appear in an OMD song, the more strongly the listener can associate it with the part of their brain that says “this sounds like OMD.” What makes this album so compelling is that ten of these tracks all succeed at both in numerous ways and degrees. The three songs I find myself fast forwarding through [“If You Want It,” “Sometimes” and most strongly, “Pulse”] all fail when compared to the mental list of tropes/and POV that I’ve constructed for OMD.
New artistic growth is always possible, and OMD have added tropes to their sound over the years. Some will succeed and get used again. Others are stylistic cul de sac’s that end in failure. I would argue that artistic POV is something that experiences less churn as it is intimately connected to the individual artist not unlike artistic DNA. That is part of what makes “Pulse” so jarring to this listener. “Talking dirty about sex” is in no way part of OMD’s established POV. In this way it avoids the truth of OMD [they are geeks, they are driven to create their music for reasons that have nothing to do with sex] in a way that makes it both alienating and repellent to this listener.
Fortunately, the vast bulk of the album has been sonic catnip to my ears. Repeat listening has given me much pleasure. Today, I’ve finally been re-listening to the OMD albums made just by Andy McCluskey in the 90s and I can easily identify just why and how they fail artistically for me. The first two are largely failures at being OMD records to me. The last album before this one, “Universal” made some great strides at returning to OMD’s artistic POV and it used a few of their tropes, resulting in four really good songs along with some ambivalent tracks and some clunkers. “History Of Modern,” on the other hand, has shaped up as being the best album they’ve made since they lost their nerve following “Dazzle Ships.” But that’s a topic for another day.
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* remind me to blog on this topic one day…