Orchestral Manœuvres In The Dark – Universal | 1996 – 2.5
[continued from this post]
It was a three year gap between the release of “Liberator” and the next OMD album, “Universal.” I remember having a very difficult time finding a copy. In 1997, it was not just possible to buy CDs on the internet. Especially from other nations. Until PayPal came onto the scene, that was a very dicey proposition. I believe it was some time in 1997-8 that by then I had joined the Associates mailing list in the wake of Billy MacKenzie’s suicide and came across someone in Europe who wanted something I could provide, and I got them to swap me a CD of “Universal” for it. The CD finally arrived after several years of not seeing a copy for sale in any way, shape, or form. By this time the Sound City 2000 catalogs I had relied upon for the first half of the 90s had dried up. Goldmine was still there, but had been useless for several years by that point.
I noted the striking cover of water molecules was a huge improvement over the last cover and I noted that Peter Saville was credited with the concept that Area [their third OMD cover in a row] executed. When I finally popped it into the ÇD player, I was rewarded with the incredible title track to the album, right up front. With a slight wind chime loop in the deep background, the monolithic industrial throb of the long intro began. Then the anguished lead synth chimed in; a variant [and not the first] of the patch used on Karl Bartos’ “Kissing The Machine.” Choral patches added mystery to the already powerful dip back into the “Organisation” sound that was clearly being referenced here. In all honesty, the song was shaping up to be a darker sequel to “Stanlow.” Yes, that great! As my quickening pulse would attest, after a decade of indifference, OMD were back.
Then, about two minutes into the track, an echo of the drumbeat faded up and the track segued from the shadowy intro to the blinding light of the “pop” portion of the song. This had an expansive, rock like feel coming on the heels of the atmospheric intro. McCluskey’s personnel for this album were radically different from the first two OMD albums he’d helmed. Phil [Toyah] Spalding played bass with drums by session man Chuck Sabo. The robust female backing vocals [the best that OMD had by this point] were from Breda Dunne; a huge step forward from the trite BVs the last three albums had included. Synths and guitars were courtesy of Matthew Vaughan, but this track had no guitars. Better, it had synths taking the place of guitars! This actual band behind McCluskey gave the song a presence closer to that of Ultravox than typical OMD. Vaughan’s muscular pitch-bended solo in the middle eight was cut directly from the cloth of the Billy Currie Holy Vestments. Did I love this? Oh yeah, but I saved the best part for last!
What made this song even more exceptional were its lyrics. “Universal” was the sort of bold, atheist anthem that had been bubbling around the edges for about a decade [nice tries, XTC, Depeche Mode] but refined and concentrated into the kind of fearless, detached sentiment that makes me frankly get a little misty-eyed with its beauty.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white
Or the God that you choose to pray to
It doesn’t matter about the clothes you wear
Or which creator made you
We all bleed the same blood
We all need the same love
And when we die there’s no heaven above
It’s universal, it’s universal
It doesn’t matter who you think you are
You’re living and you know you feel it
It’s not important as to why we’re here
You know there is no reason” – “Universal”
After hearing this song, I came to the conclusion that this was one of the finest songs OMD had ever recorded. That it came ten years into a stretch of highly variable mediocrity by the band was all the more impressive.
Next: …Wild Mood Swings
I have to say getting hold of a copy of the Universal album in the UK was difficult enough (I ended up finding a promo copy being sold on a market stall) so I feel for you trying to get it in the US. McCluskey threw in the towel of trying to release OMD albums from his experiences around this time. Despite first single Walking On The Milky Way being a top 20 hit the lack of interest from Virgin to promote the album and follow up single greatly effected any possible success with both barely bothering the charts. This added to radio stations refusing to play anything from bands from the 80’s made Andy realise he was fighting a loosing battle and pulled the plug on any future releases (until the band reforming 14 years later).
Richard Anvil – But if he had to bow out at least with this album, it could have been much, much worse. Just imagine the sour taste in your mouth if “Liberator” had been the perceived “last” OMD album.
The title track is absolutely fantastic. It feels as if it was lying around for years, waiting to be remembered – and I mean years. But it was just tease in the end…
“Universal” is indeed a fine track. It beats DM for an “atheist anthem” in my book, but if I had to award a prize for the category, it would hands down go to XTC for “Dear God.”
MathManDan – I dunno. I almost think on “Dear God” Andy Partridge doth protesteth too much for it to be the winner’s lap that “Universal” was for me. It’s more dispassionate and detached which makes it stronger for my tastes. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Have never heard the song but agree, the lyrics are excellent. It’s a shame more bands don’t try mining this subject for inspiration. You’ve tempted me to track down an album I would never have considered picking up.